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I want to begin by talking about where we are. Canberra is a city I have never lived in and have only rarely visited. And what that means is that I have to rely on my own memories of the city, and my own memories of reading about the city, whenever I want to conjure it up as an idea, so that I can imagine my way into a story or novel like Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light, so much of which is set here.
When I say that my two most vivid memories of Canberra both involve crying, I would hate any Canberran to think that it suggested a negative response to their city. I bring it up only because it suggests to me that perhaps I should have called this paper ‘reading, recognition, memory and emotion’, since memory and emotion are so closely linked, and strong emotion is so often what sets a memory firmly in the mind. It was only when I came to think more about this that I realised my two most vivid memories of Canberra don’t just involve crying, they also both involve writers and writing. It seemed an obvious place to start. Perhaps I should have called the paper ‘reading, recognition, memory, emotion and writers’.
Some time around 1987 I was here for a writers’ festival, and had gone to a reading by the great Australian poet Les Murray. Les was reading from a group of poems he’d just written that were later published in Translations From the Natural World. That book, for those of you who don’t know it, may be one of the most extraordinary things that Les Murray has ever done in his extraordinary career: imagining himself into the lives of animals and plants, and writing some version of their consciousness. The audience was mesmerised. I had never heard anyone do anything so inventive and so radical with language, or express a love and knowledge of animals that was so rich and so utterly unsentimental, or move so far and so fearlessly away from the usual sort of writers’-festival performance. Around halfway through the poem about eagles, Les and his surroundings began to go blurry, and I had to scrabble through my handbag for a hanky.
A year or two later, in 1989, I was back in Canberra doing research here in the library for a book about the life and times of Marjorie Barnard, the fiction writer and historian who was one half of the collaborative authorial entity that called itself ‘M. Barnard Eldershaw’. Barnard’s original letters are here in the library, and I was working through them. On this particular morning, I was up to 1938, when Barnard was 41, and I came to a letter she had written to her friend Vance Palmer.
Barnard, her collaborator Flora Eldershaw and their friend Frank Dalby Davison were referred to in the 1930s by the Sydney literati as ‘the triumvirate’, the three who more or less ran the NSW branch of the then highly influential Fellowship of Australian Writers. Publicly, the three of them presented as a group of three friends with common aims in literary life. To the casual observer of Australian literary history, Marjorie Barnard appears to have been the classic virginal bluestocking and spinster. But some of her fiction, particularly the iconic and mysterious short story ‘The Persimmon Tree’, belies this view, and so did her confessional letter to Palmer when she revealed to him that she and the married Davison had secretly been lovers for four years. From the tone of her letter to Palmer, Barnard seems under no illusions about Davison’s feelings for her or intentions towards her; years later she wrote to a friend ‘I loved him and he didn’t pretend to love me.’ But back in 1938, mid-affair, knowing that Davison was an inveterate womaniser, stuck at home nursing ageing parents, now aged over 40 and watching as the shadow of the war came closer, she wrote sadly to Palmer:
Perhaps you already know what has happened. You see deeper than other people … and I at least would be willing for you to know what I should hate to have anyone else touch. Frank. I’d pick up my chin and go through, but there isn’t any other side. The necessity of keeping silent and still is a sort of protection.
Either side of the word ‘Frank’ there is a little space, as though she wanted to frame his name in the silence of what she felt she couldn’t say but trusted Palmer to know. This relationship is now common knowledge in Australian literary scholarship but it wasn’t at the time, and I was so surprised and shaken by the terrible pain and hopelessness in this letter to Palmer that I began to cry, and had to be told by a disconcerted librarian to please not cry on the letter.
So that is what I see and remember whenever anyone says ‘Canberra’: a writers’ festival and a library; the genius of Les Murray and the sorrow of Marjorie Barnard. And when I first read Cold Light, those were the memories I brought to Frank Moorhouse’s reconstruction of the Canberra of the 1950s. But I brought something else of Barnard’s as well; in a story that she wrote years earlier than 1938 and that I read years later than 1989, Barnard invokes the Canberra of the early 1930s, its unfinished landscape, its extreme weather, and its disgruntled and itinerant working population of politicians and public servants. The story begins like this:
The plain was filled to the brim of its encircling hills with heat. The vitality of the Federal capital that stretched over the plain in outline still ebbed away daily through the narrow channel of the railway and by the arterial roads to Goulburn and Yass. Everyone who could get leave was going away for Christmas, home to Melbourne or Sydney, or just away from Canberra. … While those going were in the majority over those staying, the atmosphere had been gay, but now the heat pressed down on the devitalized city where those left felt that they had nothing to hope for this side of Easter.
The scene in which a young couple walk from the office where they both work back to their shared boarding-house gives a vivid picture of what the unfinished city was like around 1930:
Vera and her young man walked across the paddock called Site of the National Museum, their heads bent against the heat. The grass was the colour of dust, smelt of dust and shed its barbed seeds upon them. They walked apart in two wavering lines, exasperation in their hearts.’
Insofar as I had any sense at all of Canberra as literary construct, this image of struggling across hot dusty paddocks in order to get from work to home was the one I had in mind when I read the opening chapters of Cold Light, set in the Canberra of 1950, twenty years later. The heroine Edith is newly arrived back in Australia after decades of international League of Nations work in cities like Geneva and Vienna, and is now sitting unemployed in a Canberra hotel while her cross-dressing diplomat husband Ambrose goes to work:
She knew he was being stoical, she knew he was dissatisfied with the High Commission, with the city – town, capital, outpost – whatever Canberra was. City emergent. … The silence of Canberra was different, that was one thing she appreciated. The perfectly silent nights. … Sometimes she lay awake thinking, Is there anyone out there in the dark? Is anyone else awake? After all, she told herself, Canberra … was trying to make itself different, would be different, a city of political people, of diplomatic staff, of public servants, of journalists, of internationally recruited scholars … It would be a planned city full of lively people. Maybe Ambrose and she could inspire – or find – some accepting, protective, Bloomsbury-like bohemian spirit in this place.
She had to admit that Bloomsbury still seemed a somewhat wobbly idea in this city of parks and trees, blazing street lights along streets without pedestrians and without houses.
I have brought all of that reading and all of those memories with me from Adelaide on this trip, not as they occur in chronological order but rather in constant and jostling movement around each other, like a sack full of cats. And the same is true of all the other cities I’ve ever been to, from Ballarat to Vienna. So when it came to writing a book about Adelaide, it was some such blend or layering of emotion, reading, writing and experience that I was trying first to call up and then to write down. It was both a blessing and a curse that so little fiction and almost no poetry had been written about Adelaide; on the one hand there wasn’t a lot of imaginative writing to draw on and build on, but on the other hand, that meant the decks were relatively clear. I had Murray Bail’s novel Holden’s Performance, which so vividly evokes Adelaide’s grids of straight streets; I had the entire works of Barbara Hanrahan, whose vision of Adelaide and everything else was so peculiarly her own; and I had the stories and some of the novels of Peter Goldsworthy, who when writing about Adelaide writes from inside the city outwards, as an almost lifelong inhabitant, and so doesn’t focus much on the nature of the city itself.
All of the authors in the ‘Cities’ series were given terrifyingly free rein about how to approach the task. We were told ‘Think of it as travel writing without leaving home. Apart from that, do it any way you like, but the most important thing is the writing.’ The fundamental problem that I felt I had to come to grips with as an author was nothing less than the difference between fiction and non-fiction, and their differing functions and roles. I wanted to write a book that had plenty of information in it: a book with names and dates, with directions and landmarks, with sequences of historical cause and effect. But I also wanted to write in a way that honoured emotion and memory, since those two things are so vital to the way we imagine and experience cities.
In writing about the Adelaide Hills, for example, I could not see that it would contribute significantly to the sum of human happiness if I were to give the height in feet of the highest hill, or the tonnage of cherries produced in a good year, or the demographic statistics of the Federal seat of Mayo, populated as it is by old money and old hippies in roughly equal proportions. It would tell a reader more about the Adelaide Hills, I thought, to quote the novelists and poets who had written about them. Here’s Peter Goldsworthy in Three Dog Night:
The day has taken its name to heart, a Sunday from the glory box of Sundays, a luminous morning saturated with sunlight and parrots .. the world outside the car, wholly blue and gold, seems almost too much … Each valley is a little deeper and greener than the last, and each ridge, a little higher and bluer, seems another step in some sort of ascension.
Anyone who has ever driven through the Adelaide Hills on a sunny day will recognise this description immediately. But because we are reading fiction and not nonfiction, the description is tied to character and plot and emotion: the people in the car are newly and rapturously in love, and so all the world looks to them like Paradise. In the Barnard Eldershaw story about Canberra the writers are doing something very similar, reflecting human character and mood through landscape; while Canberra is still an abandoned dust-bowl of heat, the people are grumpy and unpleasant and mean to each other, but near the end of the story a cool change arrives in the middle of Christmas dinner and the characters are transformed:
The windows were thrown open and the wind came in, playing havoc with the table decorations. Large slow drops were falling and the twanging harp music of heavy rain coming nearer and nearer filled the room. Faces turned mutely to the hills were blanched in the storm light. Then suddenly the rain was upon them in a thick silver curtain. You could hear the hiss as it fell on earth scorched by months of drought … Already the scent of grateful earth came through the windows and the oppression of the heat was lifted.
The laughter spread along both sides of the table.
In writing a nonfiction book about Adelaide, then, I wanted to use some of the techniques of fiction to add an extra dimension to the facts. I tried to explain what I was doing in the first chapter, in which I describe the geography and layout of the city but then explore what a street map of a city might mean to someone who grew up in it:
People reading about these Adelaide streets will immediately recall their own experience of them, if they have any. The simple, pretty grid pattern is one thing, but an experiential or cognitive map is quite another, a palimpsest or layering of sense-memory, mood-memory, and the vivid recollection of images, emotions and events. For locals, in addition, there’re the impossibly complex set of associations and projections that attach to a home town’s central role in the process of self-fashioning. When I look at the map [of Adelaide], I see the words ‘Waymouth Street’ and there rises before me the image of a 15-year-old Greek boy on crutches trying to eat a hamburger in the rain in 1967 … [The words] ‘Sir Edwin Smith Avenue’ recall the scent of the sun-warmed rose garden in the grounds of the hospital where my mother died on a summer’s morning in 1999 … ‘Archer Street’ conjures up a dark man in his mid-50s walking up the street in the hot sun to meet me for a drink, 20 years after the first drink we ever met for … What rises first to full consciousness in this particular map-based form of word-association is like opera: it’s usually about love and death.
I noticed, as I was copying out that passage, how deliberately I had identified each of those experiences with dates, and it harks back to beginning of this paper when I was talking about the mixed-up chronology of reading about and remembering Canberra. I think in discussing these things it seems so important to date each observation with a year precisely because emotion and memory are so defiant of linear chronology, and yet linear chronology is clearly so important in our understanding of how any city came to be the way it is. It’s as though the two things have to be held in the mind at the same time. But when it comes to our personal experience of cities, I think we defy chronology and mash up the things we remember most vividly into one non-linear and kaleidoscopic impression, including – perhaps especially – our reading, if we are readers. So that when someone says ‘Edinburgh’ I think simultaneously of a shocking scene in one of Dorothy Dunnett’s brilliant historical fictions, set around 1550; of my own foray into the furthest corner of the second floor of a kilt-making shop halfway down the Royal Mile in 1993 to find the Scottish genealogist who had set up his little office there; and of Alexander McCall Smith’s own favourite among his characters, the put-upon six-year-old Bertie, in 44 Scotland Street. And when someone says ‘Florence’ I think of Henry James and The Portrait of a Lady, of Hannibal Lecter, of E.M. Forster, of Machiavelli, and of a silver ring I bought on the Ponte Vecchio in 1983 – again, all at the same time.
When trying to convey this idea that a personal sense of any city exists somehow within memory but outside of time, and to apply that notion to my own home city of Adelaide, I found useful a phrase that David Malouf once used when writing about Brisbane: ‘a place that I know from my body outwards’. And I ended the book the same way I’m about to end this talk, by holding that thought:
To be a citizen of Adelaide is to know some of its streets and parks and houses from your body outwards, where life is measured not in time but in accretions of lived experience; where friendship is recorded not by duration but by the number of places on the map where there have been outbreaks of music or life-changing conversations about love and work; where the distance from your first kiss to the death of your mother is not three decades but a short, pretty walk: up through the park, across the bridge, and down the road that curves away from the river.