Andrew Croome: Writing the Australian Landscape, Session 3 participating chair notes

I’d like to talk about landscape – in particular the Canberra landscape – from the perspective of a novelist, wanting to write about Canberra in the 1950s.

Thinking about this topic yesterday reminded me of something another author said to me about Document Z, which was that she liked the way in which Canberra had been used as a character.

When she told me this I said, ‘Oh, I’m glad you liked it.’ Of course, I actually had no idea that I’d done that. Immediately scurried off back to the book to see if I had.

But what I decided, eventually, was that I hadn’t. There was no character named Canberra in the book. Certainly, I’d hoped to capture something of the character of Canberra and its landscape, that was obviously a vital task. But as far as making Canberra itself a character, I’m not sure that it can be – or, at least, that it should be. For if a place is to be a character, it must have what characters have: agency. And I don’t think that places do. 

Yes, they hold sway on us, they affect us, they change us, they define us and haunt us – but in the end aren’t these things simply self-inflicted; to do with us and how we perceive the places we inhabit, and not something innate to the places themselves.

Indeed what is a place but a perception: your experience of it, your history within it, the stories you know about it, and the stories you know about its past.

When Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov arrived in Australia as visitors from Stalinist Russia, their view of Canberra was nothing like how others perceived it. They were coming from a place of scarcity to one of abundance, from a place of restriction to a place of relative freedom. They were leaving, as they called it, ‘The Empire of Fear,’ and arriving in a place in which – Mrs Petrov had been assured – palm trees stretched as far as the eye could see.

Petrov would later describe his impression of Canberra as ‘more of a pleasant country town than a capital’. Mrs Petrov said that Canberra had ‘an amiable, semi-provincial atmosphere,’ in which the Molonglo was as a ‘quiet willow-lined stream that winds through the rural center’.

If those sound to you more remarkably like antipodean, rather than Russian, observations, you may be right. ASIO’s head of counter espionage, Michael Thwaites – at that time a Melbourne-based poet but later a Canberran one – was the Petrovs’ ghost-writer.

In any case, despite the palm trees, Mrs Petrov was impressed by this city, though for her it was also a place with a dark edge. She was on, as she called it, alien territory: under the protection – for want of a better term – of her colleages at the Soviet Embassy.

For a novelist wanting to capture the Canberra landscape, this is a powerful device. In the mind of an outsider, a landscape that is commonplace suddenly has the right to be extraordinary. Once I began trawling through black and white images of the Petrovs’ Canberra, I quickly caught ‘Nostalgia’, which, as David Lowenthal points out, is a 17th century disease of the lung, caused by a prolonged journey to a foreign place, usually fatal.

In my version of Canberra, the streets could be transformed into places of mystery and significance. Lockyer Street, Lefroy Street, Blaxland and Frome – probably the height of ordinary to those born in Griffith, but for the Petrovs a strange, foreign network, wrongly shadowed: streets where a car out of place was cause for alarm, where your neighbours could be spies not just for ASIO but even for your own side.

This was a Canberra of diplomats, politicians, journalists, scientists, writers, migrants, communists and booze. It’s a place where the stars aren’t what you’re used to; a new age in which you can reach England in 12 days by flying boat (and in which car designers have a clue).

It’s a Canberra in which people are busy serving things other than themselves: science, culture, politics, their vision of a nation and of a public. Sometime they’re more than a little obsessive about it; burning the midnight oil in small rooms, working at breakthroughs that may never come.

Having moved here, after I wrote the book, I suspect that aspect of Canberra hasn’t changed. One gets the feeling that Canberra is a place that quiet and serious people can call home. Maybe it’s just the social circle I’ve slipped into, but in Canberra you don’t tend to meet many investment bankers, account managers, and business executives. This is a city which still believes in the idea that it serves the public.

One place where this attitude and Canberra’s striking landscape come together is Mt Stromlo.

I had the privelege late last year of spending some time as a writer in residence at the Observatory, that ridge of volcanic rock with its long views east, towards Canberra, and west, towards the Murrumbidgee.

It’s a fascinating place. I peered over the shoulds of astronomers, astrobiologists (searching for alien life), spacecraft engineers (working on plasma engines that I wasn’t allowed to touch): none of whom could readily understand what I would possibly find interesting enough to write about them.

What is most striking about it, of course, is its landscape. An eclectic mix of white domes that stretches across the mountaintop, interspersed by the burnt-out shells of the five telescopes destroyed ten years ago in the fires.

As many would know, the mountain was once covered in pine trees. Today, it’s much more bare. At its highpoint is the ruin of the Oddie telescope, where the observing started in 1911. I can’t help but to be fascinated by what that must have been like. Three men observing every night for two years from this tiny capsule on a dark ridge, looking down at a capital that didn’t yet exist.

Astronomy is a practical science that remakes and recycles, and a hundred years of it on the mountain have left things scattered, castoff and discarded, the ground sparsely littered with pieces of iron.

Long before the fires, parts of the observatory’s history were swallowed up this way. A beautiful octagonal kite house, like something from an English garden, was dismantled, and the locations and fates of what were once full buildings, including a magnetic hut, are now mysteries. 

At the far end of the ridge, you’ll come to the grave of the observatory’s founding director, Walter Duffield who died on the mountain in 1929. I wonder what it says about their relationship to landscape and their observatory that, just eighty years ago, they were prepared to bury someone in it?

On Duffield’s headstone is a small piece of poetry, a kind of last instruction to his observatory. It says: Take thou the torch, carry it out of sight into the great new age I must not know, into the great new realm I must not tread. And looking from the grave back towards the observatory, where the nobel prize for the discovery of the accelerating universe hangs, you can only presume that Duffield would believe they did.

During my residency I wrote two small pieces of fiction. The first was a story about the first photograph taken of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, snapped through a telescope by two astronomers who thought they’d give it a try, and whose image subsequently went around the world. The second was a story about the optical factory that came into being on the hilltop during world war two. 

What both have in common, not only in the finding of the story, but also in the telling, is that they get their start in place. The first begins: The moonlight is thin on the pine trees and he has come outside the dome to get a look at the sky. The second begins: The bus arrives at 7.45 at the corner of Alinga Street and West Row, and it takes the turn with the same heavy swing with which it came and took the turn the day before.  

I suppose that this is hardly surprising. Roberto Dainotto writes that “place is the origin of our thoughts… thinking, like being, can hardly happen in a void.”

On top of thinking and being, I’d also add feeling. For me it’s in the feeling of a landscape that stories are set. Once you have that feeling of a place, everything else can begin to flow.