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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

Ten books that have completely and utterly moved me to the core so that even now, when I look at the titles below, something reacts in my heart:

  • Disgrace by JM Coetzee
  • Holding The Man by Timothy Conigrove
  • The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin
  • Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • The Riders by Tim Winton
  • Last Orders by Graham Swift
  • Eminence by Morris West
  • The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishigo
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Twenty-three things these books have in common (and I’ve been thinking about this for ages, years really, and for a long long time I had this list up on my wall and I’d add to it and take things off until now I think it might actually mean something):

  1. They’re all late twentieth-century literature
  2. They’re all set in relatively contemporary times (i.e. 1980s and beyond), except, perhaps, Brokeback Mountain, In Cold Blood, The Remains of the Day
  3. The main characters are all men, except those in The Blackwater Lightship
  4. They’re all written by men, except Brokeback Mountain
  5. They’re all about men, even The Blackwater Lightship in a roundabout way
  6. The writers are all Caucasian, except Kazuo Ishigo
  7. They’re all fiction, except In Cold Blood and Holding the Man
  8. They’re all set in the Western World
  9. They’re all dramas
  10. Only one of them is gay-lit per se: Holding the Man
  11. Most of the main characters have clear occupations: academic, schoolboy, cowboy, butler, priest
  12. They all understand their political context
  13. They all ask questions about nationhood, except The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
  14. The passage and complexity of time is very important to them
  15. Family – in the broadest sense – is at their heart
  16. They all have strong senses of place
  17. Apart from Brokeback Mountain, they’re all single point-of-view narratives – simple
  18. They’re also all relatively straight-forward in terms of structure, but they lead the reader into tough and dark terrain: murder, mental illness, racism, religion, homophobia, right-wing ideologies, death, grief, the weight of history…but there’s also a whole lot of love
  19. They’re all driven by clear ‘what ifs’ e.g. Eminence: what if the Pope-in-waiting was in fact an atheist
  20. The prose is accessible, sometimes understated, but always beautiful
  21. The writers appear to be burning to find something out through the writing of their works
  22. There’s an overt sense of warmth and humanity – this is their true power
  23. My life would be less without them

Death’s been good to me. Up until relatively recently at least.  I’ve lost grandparents – as if somehow I’ve simply misplaced them – but that happens to all of us, doesn’t it, the loss, not the misplacement.  Then, strike, first one, then another, two wonderful people, a cousin and a friend, both women, strong women, no nonsense, no bullshit, and now they’re gone.

My cousin, my extraordinary cousin, she was a poet, a good poet, eminent say some – they made a movie out of one of her books so that might qualify her as eminent.  But she’d hate that word.  ‘Oh cuz,’ she’d say, ‘don’t go down that road.’  She was the oldest of cousins, and I am the youngest, so I have only a few memories of her when we were growing up, family get-togethers at Christmas.  Some of the parents called her precocious; I was scared of her.  As an adult, however, I plucked up the courage to email her, and she replied with the best words I’d ever heard: ‘Cuz, if you’re looking for a friend for life you’ve got one in me.  I really am a very simple person.’  A friend for life.  But now she’s gone.  (She would never have wanted her end to define her, so you’ll get no details from me.)  I can’t stop thinking about her.  To some – many – she was indeed a poet.  To me, she was the guide to my family, my nut-case family, because from her position she could see so much.

My friend, my extraordinary friend.  She was an actor.  Whenever she was on stage I couldn’t see her, so completely did she dissolve into the characters she played.  Strange how now I’m thinking about this, my friend reminds me of my cousin, because both of them were small in stature, but strong, fierce, yes, they could both be fierce.  And hilariously funny, and sweet.  My friend: she married a good man, a kind man, a man with a motorbike.  One Saturday night, late, after midnight, she posted on Facebook: ‘Trying to work out whether or not to put on another load of washing.  That’s how exciting my life is!’  The next morning she and her good-man husband went off for a Sunday bike ride on the back roads into the country.  They didn’t come back alive.  So now my friend is gone, and I can’t stop thinking about her.  She was mad on pets, completely mad, so that every time one of my own animals is sick and I’m trying to decide whether or not a trip to the vet is warranted, I hear her say, ‘I can’t believe you have to think about this!  It’s your duty to spend every cent on your little guys if you need to!’

I love angels, in fact, if the truth be known, I’m obsessed.  But I don’t believe in them; I’m not sure I believe in an after-life of any kind.  Somehow, however, in some way, my cousin and my friend aren’t entirely gone. Yes, I think about them so much.  I hear them speak to me.  Wise words from my cousin, wise and blunt – ‘Compare yourself to no one, cuz, compare yourself to no one’ – and adoring words from my friend – ‘Oh Millie is the most beautiful dog, you know that, Nigel, don’t you?’ as if I’m blind to the luck around me.

And no doubt I am.

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