Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, These strange outcrops (#BookReview)

Bagging Canberra – often used synonymously for the Federal Government – is almost a national sport, but in recent years anthologies have appeared to counter this with more complex stories about this place. The first two I’ve read – The invisible thread, edited by Irma Gold (my review) and Meanjin’s The Canberra issue (my review) – commemorated Canberra’s centenary, but last year saw the publication of the evocatively titled These strange outcrops.

This anthology is the work of two young Canberrans, Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran, who founded Cicerone Journal. Established in 2018, it is, they say,

a Canberra-based publication that seeks to encourage an open curiosity about the world in a socio-political climate of disconnection and disenchantment. We aim to publish writing that is exploratory and thoughtful, and new and unusual.

The journal’s fifth edition will be devoted to speculative fiction, and is due soon.

So now, These strange outcrops, which is subtitled, Writing and art from Canberra. It comprises original short stories, poems, and visual art created by established and emerging Canberra writers, and has a specific goal, as the editors write in their Foreword. It “grew out of a desire to question media narratives that portray Australia’s capital city as a place of disconnection and insularity”. They note that with a population of 400,000, Canberra and the surrounding region is “home to far more stories and perspectives than are commonly depicted in the news”. They wanted, they say, to “challenge the prejudices and stereotypes” and “celebrate the varied lives and imaginings of this unique place”.

“blurry at the edges” (Owen Bullock)

They have achieved their goal, and with style. This publication is physically gorgeous, from the cover, with its iconic Canberra bus stop framed by two Canberra floral emblems (the Royal Bluebell and Correa), through its beautiful endpapers comprising a correa blossom pattern, to the care taken with the design of the individual pieces. I can’t imagine any contributor not being thrilled with the look of their contribution.

But, the main point is, of course, the content. It more than lives up to the appearance, by which I mean, the book is not just a pretty face. An important thing with anthologies is the order, and it’s clear that the editors thought carefully about this. They start with the physical Canberra, and its natural environment, which is one of the reasons many of us love this place, and conclude with the experiences of different members of Canberra’s diverse population. In between, are various explorations of a wide range of aspects of life in Canberra, from those common to us all (like Cheryl Polonski’s poem “Wintertime in Canberra” and Penelope Layland’s poem “Showtime”) to some that speak to more specific experiences (like Daniel Ray’s prose piece about that challenging post-Year-12 time, “Queanbeyan: Quinbean: Clear water”). Some contributions are movingly personal, while others are unapologetically political. The end result is an authentic whole, that shows Canberra to be a rich and complex place, a bit “blurry at the edges” but with enough commonality at the core that makes us real, regardless of what outsiders might think.

Now, I did have some favourites, and will share a few of them over the rest of this post. The opening set of poems, “Canberra Haiku” by Owen Bullock beautifully introduces the collection, with its series of little impressions portaying Canberra’s breadth, from flowers peeking through a cracked pavement to a tattooed bus passenger and a permaculture working bee, from magpies and our mountains and lake to heatwaves and “blurry … edges”. The next few pieces explore place, often with an awareness of what was before we came, such as Janne D Graham’s poem “Crace Park” which conveys a sense of wrongness in our “calculated spaces”. A sort of antidote – or comment on this – is Helen Moran’s vibrant painting “Rainbow Serpent sleeping in Lake George”, the Rainbow Serpent being significant to many First Nations Australia peoples. It mesmerises me, because, while looking simple, it evokes complex and conflicting ideas. Set against a dark blue and black background, the bright, cheery serpent also looks ready to pounce. At least, that’s how it appears to me.

Patricia Piccinini, Sky Whale, pic: Nick-D from Wikipedia, using CC-BY-SA 3.0

Some of the pieces invoke wry humour to make their point, like Fiona McIlroy’s poem “sky whale” which uses the Patricia Piccinini’s Canberra-Centenary-commissioned hot-air balloon “The Skywhale” to reflect on attitudes to public art that challenges perceptions.

Canberra is
to have a whale of a time
in the Centenary
to live it up
to lighten up
kick up our heels
yet a flying
maternal mammal
is just pushing the

The wordplay throughout the poem is delicious.

“come so far, lost so much” (Joo-Inn Chew)

Some of the strongest pieces concern migration and racism. Canberra, like much of Australia, is a multicultural place. We have Ngunnawal and other First Nations people here; we have Australian-born residents who have come from around Australia for work; and we have migrants including refugees. We have – or had, before the pandemic – an annual, vibrant and successful Multicultural Festival, which celebrates this aspect of the region, but several pieces in the anthology convey the sadness and pain that must always come with migration, regardless of its cause. Anita Patel speaks in “What are you cooking?” of the sadness of losing her mother in another part of the world, so that even those weekly phone conversations are no longer possible, while Joo-Inn Chew’s poem “A new arrival at Companion House” talks of the hope contained in the birth of a baby to people who have “come so far, lost so much”.

Others are much darker, speaking to non-acceptance, such as Michelangelo Curtotti’s ironically titled poem “The welcome”. In one of those perfect segues, this poem is followed by Stuart McMillen’s graphic short story, “I used to be a racist”.

As frequently happens when reviewing anthologies, I’ve only cursorily dipped into the treasures contained within. I apologise to all those contributors whom I don’t mention here, but know that you’ve been read and heard. The best thing would be for more to read your work in this thoughtful, considered anthology. It can be purchased from Cicerone (linked above).

Meanwhile, let’s finish on Rafiqah Fattah’s defiant poem, “Generation selfie”, about the 16 to 25 year olds who are too often ignored or passed over:

And now, there is a tremor in the air
We are here

Challenge logo

Nancy Jin and Rosalind Moran
These strange outcrops: Writing and art from Canberra
Canberra: Cicerone Journal, 2020
ISBN: 9780646814155

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block. Soon after, I wrote a Delicious Descriptions on West Block, promising another one on Canberra – because, well, I can, and Canberra is my city.

Introducing that West Block post, I said that I love reading for its ability to take me to other places, lives and cultures – of course – but that there it is also special to read about one’s own place and life. It can reinforce our own impressions; it can enable us to just sit back and remember; and, most interestingly, it can encourage us to look at things from a different angle or perspective. West Block does all of these for me.


So, Canberra. As many of you know, it’s a planned city, designed from the start to be Australia’s federal capital. It was formally “named” in 1913, but, of course, the land it was built on had been occupied for over 20 thousand years before that by Indigenous people, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whom we honour today. In colonial times, it had also been farming/grazing country. All of this is referenced in West Block, though it is the contemporary built and natural environment which take precedence in the descriptions because they are what directly impact the characters.

Early in the novel, Dowse addresses the creation of the city when describing old-school George Harland’s decision to move to Canberra from the “hell” of western Victoria, the hot, dry “grass, scrub, dusk”. It had been the same, he thinks, in Canberra, but

With effort and planning and the help of some mountain streams they had beaten it. Everyone planted, in a peculiarly catholic way: silver birches and liquidambers, poplars, willows and rowan-trees, mixed with all manner of eucalyptus and acacia; the claret ash and grevillea, banksia, oleander, jonquils and hyacinth, till the colours of spring splashed over the streets, and autumn cart such a brilliant shadows they could never forget how they came to be.

I suspect there’s an intimation here too of the “catholic” development of Canberra’s population, of its comprising all sorts of people who came to work in this government city. Most of us were transplanted from elsewhere, like the exotic shrubs and trees; few of us had a family history in the place to ground us. Nearly 50 years on that has changed dramatically, but it wasn’t so at the time West Block is set.

Harland’s chapter in the novel contains some of my favourite descriptions of the city. I loved the account of his walk to work, and the various references to Canberra’s paradoxical nature as a city of physical beauty which also lacked “animation”. Harland thinks of Canberra’s past in terms of the farms, the “fields of lucerne that in earlier times had grown on the river flats”. It’s his Canberra-born daughter who reminds him of those for whom it had really been home. She takes him to her favourite park, telling him:

When I first started coming here I had no idea where I was. I mean Corroboree Park. Well, there’s nothing unusual in that. We’ve taken their language just as we have their land, and everything else. To make use of it as we will. But then I found out that this is really where they came to meet, all the tribes of this region, I like to imagine, under this very tree.

The novel is not about Indigenous dispossession and politics, but this reference, along with mentions of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and of refugees, gently introduces the idea of all the people, in addition to Cassie’s women, whose needs were being ignored.

As well as its beautiful autumns, Canberra is known for crisp winters and clear, blue skies. There is a scene just after the new-style, more proactive bureaucrat, Henry Beeker, has been through a bruising IDC (interdepartmental committee) which had to prepare a joint submission to Cabinet on uranium development and the controversial Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. Games are played and deals done to get the relevant departments to “work out some of the differences” between their ministers. Beeker goes outside with Cassie:

Outside the ground was damp from the morning’s frost, melting now with the warmth of the midday sun. Their feet made soft squishes in the turf. The sky was an uncompromising blue. Clouds bumped into each other, as if they too were invigorated by the crisp winter air.

These descriptions – “melting”, “uncompromising”, “bumping together” – perfectly evoke the physical environment but surely also reflect what Beeker has just gone through?

I have focused on a few examples that particularly speak to the novel’s meaning, but I revelled in all its descriptions of this beautiful city I call home.

Do you love reading novels set in your place – and if so, please share some!

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on West Block

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block, in which the novel is set. I am remedying that now.

But, I’ll start by saying that, like most readers, I love reading because it takes me to other places, lives and cultures. Not only is this stimulating, but it helps me understand others more – and that can only be good. However, there is also something special about reading about one’s own place and life. Sometimes it reinforces our own impressions, sometimes it just enables us to sit back and remember, and sometimes it encourages us to look at our things from a different angle or perspective. Sara Dowse’s West Block, which is set in the city in which I’ve lived the majority of my adult life, does all of these for me.

When I say I’m going to remedy that now, I mean I’m going to partly remedy that now because I’ve decided – for my benefit if for no-one else’s – to make two posts, one on West Block and one on Canberra.

West Block

So, West Block – which features on both the original Penguin cover and the new For Pity Sake one. You can find a succinct history of the building on Architect and Heritage Consultant practice Lovell Chen’s site. West Block is part of what was the Parliament House Secretariat group of buildings designed in 1925 by the Chief Architect of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Railways, John Smith Murdoch. The central building was Provisional Parliament House (now Old Parliament House, since the completion of our current Parliament House in 1988). East Block was the other building. The architectural style was, says Lovell Chen, “Stripped Classical”, though changes, including an additional wing, were made to West Block over the next couple of decades. 

As I wrote in my post, West Block housed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Dowse describes the regular trips made by its inhabitants through some of the parliamentary rose gardens to Parliament House. Another point made by Dowse is that across the road from West Block were – and still are – the British and New Zealand High Commissions.

However, by the late 1970s when the novel is set, the building was 50 years old, and it was showing. Not only was Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch (WEB) to be moved out of the Department, but Departmental head, Deasey, had “pulled a deal” to move his Department to another nearby building, so West Block could be demolished. Cassie is “appalled”, but no-one else seems to be:

They had no sense of history, these men.

West Block was being discarded, just like the WEB! (In the event, West Block has survived, but in what form is still unknown, though a boutique hotel is, controversially, the latest. Seems anomalous in the location, to me, but …)

I enjoyed the many descriptions of the building – of the light playing on the walls, of what could be seen out of the windows – but another issue related to the characters’ offices. As in most hierarchical organisations, where you are in a building says something about your status. So …

Economist Jonathan’s boss, Kenneth Olman

had one of the best rooms in West Block. Red silk drapes. Mahogany walls. On which he hung original Australian paintings, the kind that were bound to increase their value. A Whiteley. A Williams. An Olsen. Jonathan used to gaze at them during lulls, love his eyes from on to another, congratulating Olman on his taste and good sense.

We learn here of course, about the building, and about the characters of Olman and Jonathan.

Another senior bureaucrat, Harland, also had a good room.

a large, teak-panelled room with windows facing west and south. His desk was poised between them. He liked to turn in the swivel chair and, flexing his fingers, look down on the cars below, streaming along Commonwealth Avenue.

Facing west and south aren’t ideal, of course, but he did have a view of Commonwealth Avenue and those High Commissions I mentioned. However, the aspect meant that it was cool in the morning, and in the afternoon,

was filled with shadow.

And little else.

It formed part of the executive section, the refurbished front of West Block that faced the rear of Parliament House, and hid its own rather mangy tail. Despite certain luxurious touches – panelling, furniture, carpet, drapes – his office had all the persona of a monk’s cell.

Harland, we come to know, is a sober, reliable public servant – and his corner of West Block tells us that!

Can you guess where Cassie’s office is? On the “gloomy” side of the building, albeit the wind does blow in “wattle smells from Yarralumla and the embassies”. This building, Dowse conveys, was old and had no air-conditioning. It was cold in winter, but, on the plus side, they could open windows! As for Cassie’s interior decoration?

Under Rita’s supervision, the Women’s Equality Branch had dressed Cassie’s wall, with posters left over from International Women’s Year.

These are just a few examples of how Dowse describes the building, and uses it to evoke the characters of its people and their relationships. You don’t have to know West Block – which I have never entered – to enjoy Dowse’s writing about it. It lives – we have cold and sun, we have shadows and floral scents, we have views and some old building idiosyncrasies – and it acts on its occupants.

Have you loved novels in which buildings are quintessential?

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

Canberra Writers Festival 2019, Day 1, Session 1: Capital culture

It’s Canberra Writers Festival time again. The theme continues to be Power, Politics, Passion, reflecting Canberra’s specific role in Australian culture and history. I understand this. It enables the Festival organisers to carve out a particular place for itself in the crowded festival scene, but the fiction readers among us hunger for more fiction (and, for me, literary fiction) than we get. And, because the Festival is widely spread with venues on both sides of the lake, it was impossible to schedule as many of my preferred events as I’d like! Logistics had to be considered. Consequently, my choices might look a bit weird, but I think I managed to navigate the program reasonably well.

Note: There is unlikely to be a Monday Musings this Monday 26 August, as I’ll still finishing off my Festival posts!

Capital Culture: Panel discussion moderated by Irma Gold

Panel pictureThe session was billed as follows: “Some of Canberra’s finest and most creative writers join forces in this irresistible ode to the national capital. Take a wild ride through a place as described by the vivid imaginations of some of this city’s best talents. Capital Culture brings stories not just of politics and power, but of ghosts and murder and mayhem, of humour and irreverence, and the rich underlying lode that makes Canberra such a fascinating city.”

You can see then why I chose this one – to support our local writing community, and to see writers on the panel who particularly interested me (like Marion Halligan, Paul Daley, and moderator Irma Gold.)

What I didn’t realise when I booked this session was that it was also a book launch. The description says ”Capital culture brings stories …” but oblivious me read that as saying the session called Capital Culture would tell us stories about the capital! The joke was on me, not that it would have affected my decision. Fortunately I discovered my mistake moments before commencement so I was prepared.

The writers were:

  • Paul Daley: journalist and author of Canberra in the Cities series.
  • Andrew Leigh: Australian Labor Party MP, but previously a Professor of Economics at the ANU, and author of several books including the wonderfully titled, Battlers and billionaires: The story of inequality in Australia.
  • Marion Halligan: award-winning Australian writer of novels, short stories, essays and other non-fiction.
  • Tracey Hawkins: award-winning author of children’s and adult non-fiction books.
  • Marg Wade: owner and operator of Canberra Secrets Personalised Tours, and author of three editions of Canberra secrets.
  • Nichole Overall: social historian and author of Queanbeyan: City of champions.

Irma Gold opened the session by referring to the Festival’s theme, Power, Politics, Passion, and saying that Canberra is more than that. This new anthology, which includes fiction, poetry and non-fiction, offers, she said, a nuanced picture of our capital. She also acknowledged country, and noted that it was a privilege to be talking about story on this land that has been full of stories for so long.

Perceptions of Canberra

The discussion started with panel members’ initial response to Canberra. It is a peculiar thing – to me, anyhow, who specifically wanted to come to Canberra – that many who come here hate it at first.

Journalist Daley and police officer Hawkins, for example, found themselves insulated within their professional communities – Parliament House journos for Daley, and police officers, not to mention criminals and dead bodies (!) for Hawkins. It was only when they married and moved into the ‘burbs that they started to enjoy Canberra community life. Daley also discovered the bush (which was something he’d never embraced before as an inner city Melbourne boy.)

Gold also came here not wanting to come, but is now a committed Canberran. Overall’s husband’s family came here in 1958 when his father, John Overall, became the first commissioner of the NCDC (National Capital Development Commission). Although her husband didn’t much like it, his father saw the city’s “unfulfilled potential” and was instrumental in building the capital we have today, including the lake and significant buildings like the National Library of Australia.

Other panelists had slightly different stories. Author Halligan quite liked Canberra when she came here as a student in 1962, but she didn’t expect to stay. Marriage changed that, and she now loves Canberra. She’s on a mission to overturn the ongoing denigration of Canberra through the use of our name as a synonym for the the Government. The whole of Australia elects it (and, in fact, right now the government is not the one Canberra voters would have brought in!) Daley said that this use of Canberra as a synonym for the Federal government is lazy jounralism. We feel abused and misrepresented much of the time, I must say!

MP Leigh talked about his love of the “bush capital”, saying it’s hard to come back from a walk in the bush and not feel good about yourself. Canberra’s bush, he said, is grounding and a leveller, something anyone can enjoy. His responses tended to be those of a politician – not shallow responses, though, but those of someone who sees the city from a certain perspective. He said that

if Canberra was a person, I like to think that it would be an egalitarian patriot, the kind who knows the past but isn’t bound by it.

Tour guide Wade said that her approach to the anthology was to do something fun, so she wrote a story inspired by Canberra’s ghosts, in particular those at the National Film and Sound Archive. She also mentioned ghosts at the Australian War Memorial (the “friendly digger” who opens and closes doors), the Hyatt ghost (who just stands and does nothing), and Sophia Campbell at Campbell House Duntroon (who is a naughty ghost)!

Gold then asked the panelists to comment on the fact that few countries in the world show as much contempt for their capital as Australians do. The term “Canberra bashing”, she said, entered the Australian dictionary in 2013, our centenary year. Of course, Gold was speaking to the converted, but the points were well made nonetheless!

Overall agreed that Canberra is underestimated by others, and that there is more to it than its obvious superficial beauty. Daley commented that Canberra has an intelligent, outward-looking populace. Canberrans are acutely aware of the symbolic nature of place, and the way it encompasses the story of Federation. It’s an egalitarian place, compared, say, to Sydney. Canberra is mostly middle-class with few shows of wealth. He also commented that creative communities can be found all through CBR.

Leigh took up the point about community noting Canberra’s “extraordinary urban design”, including its walkability and plethora of small suburban centres, which facilitates people mixing at local shops, and engaging in community activities at levels higher, apparently, than many Australian cities.

Wade talked about loving to change people’s perception of Canberra, while Hawkins commented on how often, when she travels overseas, people have never heard of Canberra, let alone know it’s Australia’s capital.

Gold asked Halligan about the idea that you shouldn’t set fiction in Canberra. Halligan said that her fiction was not political, but about ordinary people and lives. She talked about her experience of doing book tours with her novel The apricot colonel and the frequent surprised response that Canberrans were normal, just like them. Fiction, she suggested, can help change perception. Overall mentioned the success of Chris Uhlmann and Steve Lewis’ Secret city series.

It’s not all light

Finally, Gold noted that the anthology’s editor Suzanne Kiraly had described hers and Paul Daley’s piece as being the darkest in the anthology. Daley said that while Canberra is egalitarian, it’s not a great place to be poor, and so his second piece in the book is a fiction piece inspired by a young woman busker, the “violin girl”, he used to see. Leigh agreed that there’s no shortage of suffering in Canberra, but also argued that there are many civic entrepreneurs here reaching out to support or help the more vulnerable in the community.

Hawkins added that her story is a murder, that Canberra has crimes like any other community – as she discovered in her early years working here, which took her to, among other places, the old Kingston mortuary.

Gold commented early in the session that Halligan’s piece has a mournful, sorrowful tone. Halligan responded that she was “conscious of the melancholy of things that have been lost” such as the old Georgian vicarage where Glebe Park is now. Overall agreed, saying that we lose our uniqueness and distinctness, our sense of who we are, when we lose our buildings.

Q&A – and some comments

There was a short Q & A, but I’m just going to comment on the one suggesting that Canberra does not have a great depth of multiculturalism, despite our great annual Multicultural Festival. Those panelists who responded generally disagreed, and I could see their point – to a point. However, I had already noted to myself that the panel itself was not diverse. As far as I could tell none had an indigenous nor any other culturally diverse background. And, indeed, I think the whole anthology is the same. A lost opportunity to offer some different voices about our city.

However, the anthology does include contributions from some excellent writers, and I look forward to reading it. I only wish that, like most anthologies I’ve read, the table of contents included the author’s name!

Previous Canberra anthologies I’ve reviewed:

Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels set in Canberra

The time will come, I’m sure, when I start repeating myself in my Monday Musings posts. This week’s post comes perilously close. I’ve written before about Canberra’s centenary publications (The invisible thread and the Meanjin Canberra issue), and I’ve written about Capital women and men poets, and women and men novelists*, but I haven’t specifically written about books set in Canberra. So today, Canberra Day, that’s what I’m going to do. Canberra Day, for those of you who don’t know, celebrates the official naming of Canberra on 12 March, 1913.

Canberra, as you’ll know if you’ve been reading my blog, boasts many writers (past and present). However, those writers have often not written about or set their novels in Canberra – and, sometimes, writers who don’t come from here, have. Consequently, this post’s focus is the works, not their creators’ origin. As always, I’m presenting a small selection – and the books will be presented in chronological order of their setting (as best as I can determine that).

  • M Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with laurel (1937) is believed to be the first novel set in Canberra. Unfortunately, I’ve not read this book but historian Patricia Clarke wrote about it in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2012, the 75th anniversary of its publication. A satirical novel about Australia’s literary scene, it is about a writers’ conference held in “inscrutable” Canberra and is apparently not at all complimentary about what was then barely a city. One character apparently describes living there (here) as “just awful”. Clarke sees it as an “invaluable historical record of Canberra in the 1930s”. I really must read it, and try not to let my patriotic blood boil!
  • Frank Moorhouse’s Cold light (2012, my review) spans around two and half decades, from 1950 to 1973. The last book in the Edith trilogy, it completes the story of Edith’s career which started in Europe in the League of Nations and ended in Canberra during some of the city’s most formative decades. These were the years when, for example, Lake Burley Griffin was created after much dispute. One of Edith’s first jobs when she arrives in Canberra is to work as a town planner, and Moorhouse gorgeously chronicles the discussions and controversies that raged at the time about Canberra as a place to live and work. I loved Edith’s desire to see Canberra as a “social laboratory”, which would “try out all sorts of ideas for good living”, and as a “place for citizens to ask questions”. I think Edith would love to see today’s Canberra!
  • Andrew Croome’s Document Z (2008, my review) is set in the mid-1950s and tells the story of Canberra’s most famous spies, the Petrovs. Croome describes the Canberra of those days, the suburbs and shops of the inner South, with an authenticity that suggests thorough research. Like Moorhouse’s novel it’s a good example of historical fiction, which I see as a work that combines an interesting story with well-researched depiction of the times in which it is set.
  • Sara Dowse’s West block: the hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins (1983) is set in the 1970s in West Block which is one of Canberra’s early buildings housing public service functions, and was, for some time, the home of the Prime Minister’s Department. This book is about the machinations of the bureaucracy, about the public servants who work behind the ministers to create and manage the policies the ministers want. My reading group loved it when we read it in the 1980s, because it rang true to the world we knew.
  • Fog sculture, National Gallery of Australia

    Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog sculpture rising over Dadang Christanto’s Heads from the North

    Dorothy Johnston’s The house at no. 10 (2005, my review) is set in the early 1990s, on the cusp of the legalisation of the sex industry in Canberra. This Canberra is the Canberra of suburbs and neighbours, of love and betrayal. It could almost be set in any city, except that Johnston knows Canberra and uses its particular history and features – such as the lake to divide the two aspects of the main character’s life as a mother and sex-worker – to ground the work in a particular place and time while also exploring universal themes.

  • Marion Halligan’s The fog garden (2001) is set around the time it was written. It is her novel about coming to terms with the loss of a much-loved partner. It’s also a clever book about the art of fiction – about finding the truth in the nexus between fact and fiction. It has an autobiographical element, but “Clare is not me” she says. The title is metaphorical, describing the “fog” that comes with grief, but also drawing from the wonderful fog garden at Canberra’s National Gallery. This is just one of several books that Halligan has set in Canberra.
  • Kel Robertson’s Smoke and mirrors (2010) became, by popular vote, the ACT’s book in the 2012 National Year of Reading collection of eight books designed to “articulate the Australian experience – remote, regional, suburban and metropolitan”. I haven’t read this, though Mr Gums has, but I was intrigued that a crime novel was chosen by Canberrans to represent us. Then again, perhaps it’s alright, as the murders being investigated take place at a writers’ retreat! (Maybe Robertson had read Plaque with laurel!) Also, the murders are political, relating to an about-to-be-published memoir of a government minister that is suspected to reveal CIA involvement in Gough Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975.

Have you noticed how many of the novels have politics at their core? That’s not surprising, given the sort of city we are, but I also noticed that most of the novels are fully or mainly set south of the lake (or where the lake ended up being). This is interesting, particularly given the CBD is north of the lake, but maybe it reflects my first point – parliament house, the centre of politics, is located in the south!

For a more extensive list of novels set in Canberra, check out the blog Dinner at Caphs, which documents blogger Dani’s year of reading and reviewing Canberra-set novels.

* I should probably use the adjectives “female” and “male” here, and I did in the title of one of those posts, but for some reason it just doesn’t sound right to me.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Let’s get physical – Canberra

Today’s post is the first in a little sub-series of occasional posts containing physical descriptions of places in Australia. This series is not going to be analytical or comprehensive but is intended simply to share descriptions that I like, that make me laugh, or that I think are interesting. My plan is to keep commentary to a minimum and let the descriptions speak for themselves.

I’m going to start with my home, Canberra. The first comes from Dymphna Cusack‘s A window in the dark, which I reviewed in July.

I arrived in Canberra at the beginning of spring, surely its loveliest season. It is the only city in Australia where you enjoy what is taken for granted in the northern hemisphere. Oh, the incredibly lovely decidiuous trees in their fine veil of green. The flowering cherries in their clouds of white and pink. The tulips! All in that magnificent rim of indigo hills, olive green under a variety of eucalypts and wattle. The city that Burley Griffin had designed then carried out much on the lines of his original plans, however much they were altered later, was beautiful.


Canberra was one of the loveliest places I have lived in and still is, its beauty enhanced by a picturesque lake. Today spreading suburbs have taken the place of the green undulating hills over which we wandered. One of my treasured memories is of sitting on the grass on a hillside looking right across the city to the smoky blue hills surrounding it.

The second comes from Bill Bryson‘s Down under (published in the US as A sunburnt country).

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 in it. It’s all lawns and trees and hedges and a big ornamental lake – all very agreeable, just a little unexpected.

Isaacs Ridge, Canberra

Park anyone? There be suburbs among the trees.

Both Bryson and Cusack trot out some of the usual criticisms of Canberra: it’s boring, it’s artificial (Bryson) or it’s snobby (Cusack). In its defence – after all it’s my place – I should add that Canberra has changed a lot since both wrote their pieces, Cusack c. 1976 and Bryson in 2000. Like Cusack, though, Bryson concludes on a positive note. He writes of looking out over Canberra:

It was impossible to believe that 330,000 people were tucked into that view and it was this thought – startling when it hit me – that made me change my perception of Canberra completely. I had been scorning it for what was in fact its most admirable achievement. This was a place that had, without a twitch of evident stress, multiplied by a factor of ten since the late 1950s and yet was still a park.

Irma Gold (ed), The invisible thread (Review)

The invisible thread, by Irma Gold

Cover (Courtesy: Irma Gold and Halstead Press)

I even get nervous when I open a book, you know, for the first time. It’s the same thing, isn’t it. You never know what you’ll find, do you? Each person, each book, is like a new world … (from Mark Henshaw’s Out of the line of fire, in The invisible thread)

At last, you may be thinking, she’s going to review the whole book. At least, I hope that’s what you’re thinking, because this book deserves a dedicated review rather than the scattered posts I’ve done to date. The book I’m talking about is, of course, Canberra’s centenary anthology The invisible thread.

The aim of the anthology is a little different to that of Meanjin‘s special Canberra issue, which I recently reviewed. While its editor, Sanders, wanted to offer “a taste of Canberra”, Gold’s aim was to present “literature of excellence” from writers, past and present, who have had a significant relationship with Canberra. For her, Canberra is “not the headline act” but provides “the invisible thread” linking the writers to each other and to the rest of Australia. In her foreword, Robyn Archer, the centenary’s Creative Director, puts it this way:

Many of the pieces are not about Canberra, but they reveal a diversity of interest and style among writers in this region, and thus reflect the unique nature of a city which is located rurally, but positioned nationally.

In other words, The invisible thread is not a parochial apologia for Canberra but an intelligent presentation of the city’s and thence the nation’s cultural, political, social and interpersonal life. The nation’s concerns are Canberra’s concerns – at both the macro (war, indigenous-non indigenous relationships, the environment, and so on) and the micro (birth, marriage, death, and everything in between) levels. You would be hard-pressed as an Australian, or even as an international citizen, not to find something in this book to interest and move you.

Reviewing an anthology is tricky though, and this is particularly so with The invisible thread because it comprises highly diverse pieces – poems, short stories, essays, and excerpts of novels and non-fiction works.  The pieces are not grouped by form, like the Meanjin issue, but in a more organic way intended to take us on a journey in which, editor Irma Gold writes in her Preface, “each work is allowed to converse with those beside it”. And so, in preparation for my reading group’s discussion, I went back to the start and read the book in the order presented. What a pleasure that turned out to be because I did indeed discover added meanings that weren’t necessarily apparent from the dipping-in-and-out approach I had been using.

Let me give an example. The anthology opens with an excerpt from war historian CEW Bean’s Anzac to Amiens, itself a condensation of his Official history of the first world war. I knew of Bean but had not read his history. I was surprised by his use of imagery, such as this:

And out on every beautiful fresh morning of spring come the butterflies of modern warfare – two or three of our own planes, low down …

After another war-related non-fiction piece, the anthology segues to a short story (“The Good Shoppers”) by Lesley Lebkowicz, which is about her refugee parents, now old and shopping in the supermarket but still affected by the Holocaust, and then to two poems about age (Judith Wright‘s “Counting in sevens” and AD Hope‘s “Meditation on a Bone”). The “conversation” encouraged by this sequence is complex and, I expect, different for each reader. For me, the juxtaposition suggests an irony: “war” steals “age” from many of the youths sent to it. This is just one small example of the sorts of “conversations” Gold has set up in the anthology. Considering them as I read the book added another layer to an enjoyable reading experience. I like reading that challenges my brain on multiple levels.

Compiling an anthology involves, obviously, selecting what to include. It must be hard enough to choose poems, short stories and essays, but what about writers who are best (or only) known for novels or non-fiction books? They can only be represented through excerpts, but there is the risk that these cut-down pieces will be less satisfying to read. Alternatively, of course, they might encourage us to locate the full work and read it. The Bean example above is an excerpt. There are many others, including those from Kate Grenville’s Sarah Thornhill, Jack Heath‘s Third transmission, and Roger McDonald‘s When colts ran. I have noted many to follow-up, which tells you how I found the excerpts overall!

A trickier challenge, probably, is that of representing diversity – not just regarding chronology, subject-matter, tone, and form or genre, but in terms of the writers themselves, such as their gender, or whether they are of indigenous, migrant or other minority background. What emphasis should be given to these in the selection process? And, anyhow, should the writer’s background be highlighted? I’m not sure what Gold and her committee decided about this but the anthology, while primarily representative of the majority culture, is not exclusively so and probably reflects the writing community it drew from.

This is not the last you’ll hear from me on the anthology. It is much too delicious, much too rich, much too full of “luminous moments”* for me not to continue to draw from it. I’m possibly – probably? – biased, but I believe this book should be on every Australian bookshelf and, without disrespecting Irma Gold’s hard work, I’d say it doesn’t really matter whether you read it in its original order or just dip into it as the spirit moves you. What would matter would be to not read any of  it at all.

Irma Gold (ed)
The invisible thread: One hundred years of words
Braddon: Halstead Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781920831967

* from Marion Halligan’s essay “Luminous moments” which concludes the book.

Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue (Review)

Meanjin Canberra Issue 2013

Courtesy: Meanjin

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
ISBN: 9780522861938

(Review copy supplied by Meanjin)

Monday musings on Australian literature: What’s in a street name?

Street names may be an unusual topic for a post on literature, but I think it could be argued that names of things are part of our wider literary culture. It can certainly be argued so for my city because street names here are serious business. None of your 5th Avenues and 61st Streets for us! I know, I know, New York’s a great place, and very easy to navigate compared to Canberra with its reputation for going round in circles, but we have our reasons …

I was inspired to write this post because this past weekend Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were in town as part of their Diamond Jubilee Tour downunder. One of their duties was to take part in the renaming of Parkes Place to Queen Elizabeth Terrace. This has special meaning for me because the address of my first library employer was Parkes Place, which was named for Henry Parkes, the “father” of our Federation. Queen Elizabeth now joins Queen Victoria, King Edward, and King George in being commemorated by a street in what we call our Parliamentary Triangle. I’m pleased to say that poor old Henry is not being completely brushed aside: the little roads that circle Old Parliament House will now be called Parkes Place.

Enough about my inspiration though, and back to the main point, which is that in 1928 the Canberra National Memorials Committee of the Australian Parliament presented a “Report in Regard to the Naming of Canberra’s Streets and Suburbs” which laid down principles for Canberra’s official nomenclature. Early in the document comes this:

… the commission divided the Canberra City District into 23 divisions. It devolved upon the National Memorials Committee to find names for these divisions, which will eventually become the suburbs of the capital. It was felt by the Committee that patriotic and national sentiment would be best met if the names of those men who have contributed most to Australia’s existence as a unified nation, be used in the most important places, that is, for the names of the divisions or suburbs of Canberra.

The patriotism of a nation is often expressed by memorials to its benefactors, so it is deserving and right that the names of those great statesmen who laboured in the cause of the federation of the Commonwealth should be perpetuated as place names to be used in the mother-tongue by all Australians for all time.

A map of inner Canberra showing the Parliament...

Inner Canberra early suburb names. (Photo credit: Martyman, using CC-BY-SA 3.0, via Wikipedia)

Now isn’t that a great piece of bureaucratic literature! I particularly love the reference to “mother-tongue” after the preceding references to “men” and “statesmen”. It then lists the names of these men, and explains that “a suffix has been added, similar to some of the Anglo-Saxon names of towns in Great Britain, where the name is thought not to be very euphonious”. So, while Braddon gave rise to the suburb of Braddon, and Barton Barton, Lyne became Lyneham and Fysh Fyshwick. Ingenius eh?

The Report then goes on to note that other suburbs would be based on names connected with Canberra’s early days and its pioneers, and that “the use of aboriginal names has not been overlooked.” They stated that much knowledge of indigenous naming in the Canberra region had been lost but those known would be retained, and so they are – with most rolling off the tongue beautifully (euphoniously, even), like Narrabundah, Yarralumla, Pialligo, Jerrabomberra, Mugga, and Canberra itself.

All this is probably pretty common in cities elsewhere but the committee went on to set down principles for the naming of streets:

The Committee has adopted the idea of grouping together various classes of names in separate areas. Sections of the City have therefore been set apart for Governors, Explorers, Navigators, Scientists and others, Foresters and others, Pioneers and others, Founders of the Constitution, and euphonious Aboriginal words.

I wonder whether the names of the scientists, foresters, “and others” had to be “euphonious”?

I won’t go on with more of the report, but I will say that this plan has continued to the present. One of our newest suburbs, still in the making, is Wright – named for the poet Judith Wright. Yes, we do now have a handful of suburbs named for women, including the writers Miles Franklin, Dame Mary Gilmore and Henry Handel Richardson. Moreover, some of our street names, says ACTPLA, our current planning authority, are named for “quiet achievers”. Things do change in the corridors of government – eventually. As for the theme for Wright’s streets, it’s a somewhat diverse one, “Environment, Poets and Butterflies”. Maybe there’s a connection there; Wright was a poet and a conservationist so perhaps the latter covers the “environment” and the “butterflies”!

I like that fact that such thought has been put into Canberra’s urban (or is it suburban) nomenclature, and I’m glad that while the spirit of the early planners has remained our nomenclature has broadened to encompass women, quiet achievers, the arts and increasing usage of indigenous names. The end result is, for we capital residents, a fascinating literature of suburb and street names. Do you have such literature where you live?