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Millie ‘Tubs Malone’ Featherstone: the best place in the house.

It was always going to be a challenging day, and by challenging I mean gutwrenching – after seventeen years of good living, Millie was to draw her final breath.

Being a black Labrador, she had been a most loyal and intelligent companion. At dawn every morning, I would hear the clip-cop of her paws on the floorboards as she came to say hello to me in bed. We walked together every day.

She loved going in the car, which was something I appreciated because living in regional New South Wales means I travel a lot; she would stand on the backseat and rest her head on my shoulder as I drove, as if she was pretending to be a pirate’s parrot. At the end of every day, she would sit beside me on the couch as I watched the news on TV or listened to music.

In her last two years, however, Millie had been suffering from arthritis, especially in her back legs. Despite excellent veterinary treatment, her daily walks had gone from ten-kilometre adventures up and down hills to a ten-minute stroll to the nearest street corner and back. A heat-wave had also knocked her around, to the point that she was panting all day.

One morning, on one of her strolls, she developed a bad limp; as I carried her home in my arms I knew the time had come.

*

Keep reading at the Sydney Morning Herald, where the story was published on 26 June 2017. It was commissioned by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre in relation to the 2017 Empire Global Art Award. Correction to the attribution: I am a resident of the Southern Tablelands in New South Wales (not ‘the southern highlands’).

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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

The city’s been good to me, one particular city, it’s called Canberra and it’s an hour down the road.  I lived in the place from 1987 to 2010, over half my life.  I moved there as an eighteen-year-old, escaping Sydney, that city of two million people at the time (it’s four million now), purposely leaving behind everything that it had been to me, for me, the rich district where I grew up, the private schools, the Mercedes and BMWs and Volvos and Porsches, the loveliness of all that, but also the dreadful emptiness – I’ve been disinterested in material wealth ever since.

In Canberra I enjoyed university life, group-house life, working my way into adulthood, finding myself (more or less), making friendships, many of who remain with me to this day, settling down, running amok, settling down again.  In Canberra I met my partner Tim.  In Canberra I rediscovered my love of reading and writing, committed myself to both, started writing poetry (the first thing I ever wrote and had published – under a pseudonym – is now embedded into the pavement in the heart of the city) but quickly moved onto short stories and then longer forms.  I began doing freelance work for The Canberra Times, interviewing writers and artists, which has been such a pleasure.  In Canberra I had a stroke of good real-estate luck, which now enables me to live in the country without debt.  Now when I look at my resume I realise how good Canberra has been for my creative life.

So, for almost two and a half decades, Canberra was home, that most modern of cities, imagined from the ground up by the American architect and landscape planner Walter Burley Griffin and his professional partner and wife Marion Mahoney.  The Griffins won the international design competition in 1912, and the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, so next year one of the world’s great designed cities turns 100, which is quite something, wouldn’t you say?  But not everyone will be celebrating.  To the majority of Australians, Canberra is just the place of Australia’s federal parliament and all the public-service departments that go along with that.  Only ever experiencing the city via compulsory school trips, they see the intricate order of every street and street corner unnatural, as if the city isn’t Australian at all.  Indeed, as a child and I’d visit Canberra with my family, I always thought that as we drove across the border we were stepping into another world, a bit like how it’d be travelling in Europe, so I day-dreamt.

It’s true that Canberra is quite odd; now that I don’t live there but remain close by I can see that now.  It is ordered, it is polite.  It is a city-state, which means to many it’s neither one thing nor the other.  It can be the most beautiful city in the world – 70% of the Australian Capital Territory, of which Canberra is the centre, is mountainous national park, much of it getting dustings of snow in winter.  Regrettably, to many it can also be the most boring city – it’s never developed the pub culture that makes a stack of other Australian places come alive.  It should be made clear, though,that  these days Canberra has many fine cafes, bars, clubs and restaurants, and the diversity and quality of cuisine matches or surpasses that available anywhere else in the country, even Melbourne and its ridiculous self-belief that it’s the centre of Antipodean culture.

In the end, however, Canberra is just a community of 350,000 people getting on with their lives – half of the residents don’t have a thing to do with the parliament or public service.  In general the population is well-educated, well-read, and politically leans to the left.  For a long time it has had progressive policies on recreational drug-use, prostitution and pornography, it was the only state or territory jurisdiction to vote YES in the 1999 referendum for Australia to become a republic, and on Tuesday 14 August 2012 the ACT Legislative Assembly will vote in favour of the most advanced same-sex relationship laws in the country.

Manning Clark: possibly cranky.

It’s not surprising, then, that Canberra is also a creative and cultural place.  Statistics regularly reveal that the city’s rate of participation in the arts is higher than anywhere else in Australia, and many high-profile artists working in all forms of creative practice call the ACT region home.  In particular, Canberra has for decades well and truly punched above its weight in terms of writing.  The list of eminent writers from this neck of woods is long: Miles Franklin, Judith Wright, Rosemary Dobson, Manning Clark, Roger McDonald, Marion Halligan, John Clanchy, Alan Gould, Geoff Page… In fact, the list is so long that as part of the centenary of Canberra celebrations a major anthology is being published – it’s called The Invisible Thread.  The book will be launched in November as part of the National Year of Reading, but will also have a long run through the centenary shenanigans.  This in itself is very exciting, but it’s also personally very exciting because my work has been selected for inclusion, which is an almost unbelievable honour.

But here’s the rub: despite the project attracting a publisher, Halstead Press, and support from the ACT Government as well as other literary and related organisations, including my own publisher, Blemish Books, The Invisible Thread does not yet have enough money to get over the line.  It says something about the status of writing – any kind of creative practice – in Australia when a book of this – dare I say it – importance has to put out its hand.  Because that’s exactly what the project team, led by the tireless Canberra writer and editor Irma Gold, has done: it’s started a Pozible campaign to help pay for the marketing side of the book, to make sure the work has the best life possible out in the community.  At the time of writing, 40 generous people have pledged $3,335 with the target being $5,000 .  If you have a few dollars to spare, why not throw them into the Invisible Thread bucket; if not, perhaps you might pass this post onto someone who might be interested.  There are 28 days to go to make this happen.

So, yes, Canberra has been very good to me.  It’s where I found myself, where I found family and friends and love.  How lucky I’ve been to have spent so long in a community where democracy is at the heart, where people like to think, where people have the long view and move forwards, where the diversity of its population is held up for all to see, where the reality of contemporary living informs policy and legislation, and where a book that celebrates 100 years of working words is about to spring to life.

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