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So here's a place.  And perhaps it means something...good.

So here’s a place. And perhaps it means something…good.

Overhead the plover,
Like the moon apart,
Tells his lonely knowledge,
Of the human heart.

– from ‘Town Planning’ by David Campbell

 *

At the bottom of the world, in a country of white-sand edges and a heart of red dust, halfway between a glittery tart called Sydney and Melbourne’s rash of football scarves, is a city, a capital city, a place dreamed up over a century ago to be the ideal[1].  Canberra: founded on landscape and democracy, geometry and axis.  And smack-bang in the middle of this dream city, at the end of a grand spine, is a hill.  Not a mountain or a temple, just a simple pimple of a hill.

It’s not a big place, just a few hectares rising up to a hump, all of it planted out with tree species imported from other lands, thick green grass as if supporting a dairy, vacant park benches scattered here and there.  But encircled by a busy double-lane road, this hill is more an island.  A secret island, and very few people cross over; you can’t see what’s inside.  A grotto, a moated castle, a place for ghosts and hunchbacks, except bells don’t ring out from here – City Hill is gagged.

This isn’t how it was meant to be.

Walter Burley Griffin, the architect/landscape architect/town planner/ dreamer/mystic/sharman who gave us the original idea for Canberra (before it was stymied by a sceptical, Europe-obsessed federal public service) described City Hill – or, as he named it, ‘Civic Place’ – as an ‘eminence’[2].  What a great word!  Distinction, recognised superiority.  A piece of rising ground.  Eminent: exalted, great, famous, celebrated.  I don’t know about you but I’m conjuring witch doctors and cardinals, and there’s applause that could go on for hours.

But in 2013 how is City Hill actually used?

If you ever want to get clues about a place, do what good pulp-fiction detectives do – ferret around rubbish bins.  And this is what you would find on our Hill: empty booze bottles, spent condoms.  That’s it.

Despite all the planning that’s gone into Canberra (it’s been sketched to within an inch of its life, you might say), despite the desires to make this particular spot on our fragile little planet a place of enduring symbolism and meaning, City Hill is nothing more than a forested mound ringed by a raging torrent of cars driven by people with malls to visit and fastfood to buy.  A place no one goes except some time between midnight and dawn, for people who’ve trawled through Civic and scored and are now ready for the payoff.  A place for the losers who just want to forget their heart’s ‘lonely knowledge’, as Campbell puts it.  And it’s a place for the others who haven’t a skerrick and will spend sub-zero nights sleeping beneath pencil pines, tick-ridden possums for company.

Novelist Miles Franklin paid tribute to her good friend Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marian Mahoney Griffin – possibly the brains of the duo – in a piece that appeared in the Bulletin in 1937:

Never, they felt, had there been a better opportunity to create anew, free from the debris of old mistakes and the shackles of dead tradition, than in this wonderland with its forward-looking and independently-minded democracy.[3]

Franklin might have been impressed with Canberra (you would have been if you spent a childhood looking at it from the hazy blue heights of the Brindabellas and then racking off overseas), but City Hill in real life is just a mirror.  Perhaps it proves that if our efforts to plan and design don’t result in the creation of great places, we will fill our world with ordinariness.  Because at the core of our lives, at the centre of our communal existence, is mystery.  And we try to medicate our frustrations at this mystery with the most ignoble of acts.

City Hill hasn’t become what the Griffins dreamt.  No, not yet.

But it could be a wonderland, an ideal – it could have unending eminence.


[1] Walter Burley Griffin, New York Times, 2 June 1912

[2] National Capital Authority, The Griffin Legacy – Canberra, the Nation’s Capital in the 21st Century, Canberra, 2004, p66

[3] Ibid., p. 30

David Campbell’s ‘Town Planning’ can be found in David Campbell: Selected Poems, Angus and Robertson, 1978

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About a launch

Somehow it’s all happening at once, so to keep track of everything that’s happening, and to share some of the goodies, here’s a very rare mid-week Under the counter post.  Firstly, just a reminder that my second novella with Blemish Books, I’m Ready Now, is being launched tomorrow (Thursday) night, at 5.30pm at Electric Shadows Bookshop, Mort Street, Braddon, ACT; it’s a thrill to have journalist and biographer Christine Wallace cutting the metaphorical ribbon.  Cue sleepless nights and trembling hands.

Story leaks

Over the last few weeks I’ve been leaking bits and pieces about I’m Ready Now, so to keep the tradition going for a little while longer, this novella manages to meander its way between Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, and northern Vietnam and south-west Ireland also get a mention.  And ‘Sail On’ by The Commodores features, and this is a band that can apparently walk on clouds – make of that what you will.

Guesting, whispering

Relating to I’m Ready Now, the increasingly influential literary blog Whispering Gums recently asked me for a guest-post.  I wrote about novellas (no surprises there), raising children (yes, you read that right), and how family-life is the raison d’etre of the contemporary Australian novel (I really believe that).  Oh, I also mention zombies.  Massive thanks to Sue Terry for the opportunity.

An anthology of giants

More broadly, I’ve mentioned before that a story of mine, ‘Severance’, which was first published in the Canberra Times in 2003 and republished in Island in 2004, has been included in The Invisible Thread: one hundred years of words (Halstead Press), which celebrates the Centenary of Canberra in 2013.  Creative Director of the Centenary – and singer, writer, and arts-luminary-in-general – Robyn Archer says in her introduction: ‘The anthology includes names such as Roger McDonald, David Campbell, Blanche d’Alpuget, Barbara Blackman, Rhyll McMaster, Alan Gould and Jackie French; but there are also equally beautiful emerging voices such as those of Omar Musa, Nigel Featherstone, Sarah St Vincent Welch and Melinda Smith.  That so much good writing, past and present, should emerge from this region is a powerful challenge to the silly cliché of Canberra as a city without a soul.’  Needless to say, it’s a real treat to have work included in these pages.

Oh look, I’m now on YouTube

The tireless editor and project-manager of The Invisible Thread, Irma Gold, who is a very fine author in her own right, has video-interviewed seventeen of the writers involved, including yours truly.  You can watch the interview here.  Mostly I talk about how ‘Severance’ (which, perhaps, has turned out to be my biggest hit) was written, the benefits of living in Canberra and now Goulburn, and juggling everything that life throws at us.  The Invisible Thread is being launched in Canberra on Thursday 29 November.

I hope you enjoy the links, but it’d be great to cross paths with you in person at the I’m Ready Now launch tomorrow night, or The Invisible Thread launch next week.

Onwards.

Virginia Woolf’s writing room

‘Find the place where passion and precision are one.’  (Yeats)

‘Making a character ‘alive’ means getting to the bottom of his existential problem, which in turn means getting to the bottom of some situations, some motifs, even some words that shape him.  Nothing more.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘Ford and Conrad loved a sentence from a Maupassant story, ‘La Reine Hortense’: ‘He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.’  Ford comments: ‘that gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act.  He has been “got in” and can get to work at once.’’ (James Wood in How Fiction Works, 2007

‘Care about writing because it matters.  Ache over every detail.  Be involved in the painful and intolerable wrestle with words and meaning.’  (Mem Fox in Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning and Living, 1993)

‘Writers have one great responsibility: to write beautifully, which is to say write well.  Within this responsibility is that of being truthful.  To charm, to amuse, to enchant, to take us out of ourselves, these are all part of beauty.  But there is a parallel responsibility: and that is to sing a little about the realities of the age, to leave some sort of magical record of what they saw and dreamt (because they can’t really do it the same way when dead) and to bear witness in their unique manner to the beauties, the ordinariness, and the horrors of their times.’  (Ben Okri in A Way of Being Free, 1997)

‘Go boldly forward and write the email to Australia and the world that says, ‘Your position is not sustainable.  You cannot keep going in this direction.  Something is going to give: it may be your relationships, it may be your infrastructure, it may be your children, or it may be you.’  (John Marsden, from his Colin Simpson Lecture to the Australian Society of Authors, 2005)

‘When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.”  I write it because there is a lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.  Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.’  George Orwell in his essay Why I Write, 1946)

‘Write it only for yourself, not for publication, not to show anyone, but full out, all you feel, for yourself, alone… And then sooner or later I daresay someone will talk you into publishing it somewhere.’ (correspondence from Douglas Stewart to David Campbell in Letters Lifted into Poetry, 2006)

‘To compose a novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side – and that, to me, is the writer’s subtlest craft.’  (Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel, 1986)

‘There is only one recipe – to care a great deal about the cookery.’
Henry James

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