Shortlisted for the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award, Frank Moorhouse’s Cold Light takes place in early Menzies' Canberra. Three past and present Canberrans respond to Moorhouse’s account of the nation’s capital.
Sara Dowse: It’s almost impossible for me to separate my admiration for Cold Light from my own responses to the city I lived in for thirty years. I confess that I rushed out to buy it the minute it was in bookshops because I was intrigued to see what Frank Moorhouse’s response would be. Frank, whom I had always regarded as the quintessential Sydneyite, would be the litmus test, I thought, of Australia’s preparedness to accept its much maligned capital. But it was more than that.
A profound sense of dislocation (often laced with the ironic) dogged all the days I lived in Canberra. And yet that was the catalyst for my wanting to write about it. After growing up in Los Angeles I was used to having the place where I lived disparaged. LA too is the city everyone loves to hate, but anyone who dips her toe in its history can only be fascinated by its tremendously rich cultural life. I felt the same about Canberra, especially when in 1974 I went to work in the Prime Minister’s department. Canberra was even more a company town than LA. Government was, and is, the essence of the place. Anyone outside it thinks the public service is wasteful and boring and, admittedly, a chunk of it is. But it certainly wasn’t then. I learned to deeply respect many of my bosses—the old mandarins like Geoff Yeend or Ian Castles or Keith Pearson, men of great intelligence and probity, and the new ones brought in by Whitlam like Brian Johns and John Menadue. There were nongs and sleazebags, to be sure, but they were simply the sideshow.
Most Canberra fiction writers have been keen to make the point that the people they write about are people like any other, with loves, hates, disappointments and all the rest. They are eager to show that Canberra is just like any other Australian city and Canberrans are no more affected by the city’s major industry than other Australians are. Whereas my project, so to speak, had been the very opposite. I wanted to celebrate that industry, to show that while it could be frustrating and demanding and too often seemingly pointless, it was also important, its participants at times heroic, even—dare I say it ?—noble.
So this is where Frank comes in. The curious thing is that we are exact contemporaries, both born towards the close of 1938. And although we have lived radically different lives, I think having come into the world at that exact moment has profoundly shaped our view of it. So maybe it’s no accident that we both have been drawn to writing about people engaged in trying to make the world a better place, although with Frank in his trilogy on a much grander scale. Nor can it be wholly accidental that, after her great disillusionments, Edith Campbell Berry ends up in Canberra and does what she can to recreate her lost Geneva by helping to institute Canberra’s lake. While being alive to their deficiencies, neither Frank Moorhouse nor I can shake off a belief in plans and committees—in the possibility of government.
The strengths of Cold Light are the characterisations, the lovely Edith and Ambrose, and the careful picture their creator paints of a multifaceted city. His portrayal is pitch perfect. His microcosmic Canberra has it all, right down to Fred Ward’s furniture. Moorhouse is above all a social writer, a meticulous recorder of manners, décor, architecture and what he has called a society’s sumptuary laws. But apart from references to the lake, there are scarcely any descriptions in the whole of the novel of the city’s remarkable physical environment, which had such an impact on me. I write this as an observation, not in criticism, which only goes to further exemplify the endless ways in which Canberra can be experienced and represented. Thanks to Frank it has been represented, fairly and appreciatively, to a readership that, this time, will certainly take his word for it.
Subhash Jaireth: I live in Aranda, a bushy suburb to the northwest of the Lake Burley Griffin. Often I walk across the Black Mountain to work in the Chifley Library in the Australian National University. Occasionally I change my route and take a track along the southern slope of the Black Mountain. I have a favourite spot there; a bench-like flattened surface of a rocky outcrop looking south to the lake. I enjoy the panoramic view of the Lake and the Parliament Triangle beyond it. Each time I come face to face with the lake I realise how important it is for the city. Like many Canberrans I can’t imagine the city without the lake: a pearly girdle round the slim waist of ‘Lady Canberra’. When I am travelling and want to think about the city, I always begin with the lake.
Like Edith I am a scientist, a geologist; I have visited the Rum Jungle uranium mine mapped around the old pit where uranium was extracted for the testing of US and UK bombs. Like her I have been to Vienna several times and worked on the twenty-third floor of the E-Tower of the IAEA complex. From the window of the office one can see the meandering bends of the beautiful Danube, the undulating slopes of mounds dotted with forests gazed by tall wind turbines. Like her I love Vienna, which has become the setting of many of my own stories.
Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities confesses that ‘every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.’ Edith’s Venice is Vienna. Vienna is ‘her home: Vienna—or the meaning of Vienna. Big issues, an international conference, meetings that could have results.’ It seems that like Marco Polo, Edith too carries her city or cities (Geneva and Vienna) with her. Each city she visits, lives, or in the case of Canberra, helps to take shape, is overprinted by her Vienna.
With respect to Canberra, however, her first reaction is predictable and clichéd. It is a small city in a little country without much significance for the rest of the world. ‘Finding someone in Canberra isn’t hard,’ she remarks. It is a ‘city that is not a city,’ a ‘make-believe city’ where to find a ‘grand dinner’ is next to impossible or where the thought of a ‘fancy lunch’ is almost absurd. But she enjoys the silence of Canberra. ‘That was one thing she appreciated,’ the narrator tells us. ‘The perfectly silent nights. And even silent days. Sometimes she lay awake thinking, Is there anyone out there in the dark? Is anyone else awake? She had never lived with such night silences since the Jasper’s Brush of her childhood.’
Once she manages to save the lake, although she loses the battle to get it named ‘Lake Walter Burley Griffin’ or ‘Lake Marion and Walter’, and watches it being ‘opened’, her response, as recounted by the narrator is highly poetic. ‘The city was growing up into a handsome young woman,’ he tells us. ‘The lake was her gleaming hair and her smooth skin. And her shapeliness. Edith’s mind suggested another metaphor: the lake was the vase; the city’s handsome buildings, the flowers. The vase and the flower were a unity—neither flower nor vase.’ She has great hopes for the ‘emergent city’. It would become a ‘social laboratory and would try out all sorts of ideas for good living and would lead the country.’ My instantaneous response after reading these musings of the narrator is pencilled on the margin: No, never.
As we in Canberra know, Lake Burley Griffin has created its own problems. It is marred by the recurring blooms of blue and green algae, which turn it out of bounds for swimming and other water related activities. It is often polluted by outflows from the catchment area and especially from sewerage fed by floods in the Molonoglo River. But most importantly it has divided the city into two regions: the Parliamentary Triangle administered by the National Planning Authority hosts all iconic National Institutions such as the library and the gallery. The ACT government is on the northern side of the lake, with its own gallery, museum and its own theatre. Most Canberrans feel left out and begrudge their Cinderella status. They and their government want to exercise more control over land-planning and urban development issues in the triangle. This isn’t what Edith had expected. Watching the lake filled in just days she felt that ‘the lake’ would not ‘divide the city into two’ but embrace ‘the new city into an accord.’
Putting aside these misgivings, which in the 1960s would have been impossible for Edith to contemplate, she and the narrator do overlook the fact that most garden-like suburbs and streets are named after politicians, and that a city which could have been christened Shakespeare, had not a single street or square named in the honour of an artist or a writer. Only recently, after a wait of ninety years, a suburb has finally been named in the memory of one of Australia’s finest poets Judith Wright.
Nicholas Jose: Frank Moorhouse taught me a life lesson once. I was looking for a park in Balmain, chauffeuring Frank and some other literary types from the boatshed where our mutual agent, Rosemary Creswell, then operated to a watering hole in Darling St. I found a spot into which I could just about wedge my Holden Gemini with enough fine adjustment. I was quite proud of my big city technique, taking no prisoners, as one would have done with a Fiat Cinquecento in a side-street in Rome. But Frank told me I had breached the etiquette of such things in inner-city Sydney. By not leaving the cars on either side enough room to get out easily, I was committing an act of aggression, causing trouble for others which could cause trouble for me in turn. You should always allow your neighbours enough space, even if it means finding a less convenient park. That is an important lesson for which I have been lastingly grateful. I regard Frank as an experienced guide in such life matters.
It is fascinating, then, to see Moorhouse in Canberra, where there is usually plenty of parking space, where there is, in fact, planned space, and plenty of it, for people to live, move and park in. I lived in Canberra off and on from 1970, when I arrived there from Adelaide as an undergraduate, to 1985, when I left my teaching job at ANU to go to China. I have a great feeling for the place. Canberra introduced me to Australia, as a whole, as an idea, through my fellow students who came from all over the country and beyond, thanks in part to a generous national scholarship scheme at the time. A new conceptualisation of Australia was being worked out in those years, which climaxed when the Whitlam government was elected in 1972 and then dismissed in 1975. My pulse quickened, as I read Cold Light, the final in Frank Moorhouse’s Edith Trilogy, which traverses Canberra’s middle years, from Menzies to Whitlam, to reach the point when Edith’s time was suddenly my time too: ‘and new people arrived. Drums of victory were beaten.’
The handling of time, as the contemporary emerges from history, or conversely, as the present, in which lives are lived, recedes into the low relief of a frieze, is one of the fascinating aspects of this new novel. It sets it apart somewhat from its predecessors, Grand Days and Dark Palace, while bringing their ambitious architecture to a conclusion. Cold Light enters the territory of the author’s own life and times too (Moorhouse was born in 1938), and Edith’s Canberra is a place in his world. From the heights of Geneva and Vienna, Edith Campbell Berry, international bureaucrat protagonist, has come home, with husband number two, cross-dressing British diplomat, Ambrose, and she has come down, lowering her expectations in response to the cruel realities of her gender and age in ‘the newest—the smallest capital city in the world’. Returned now, she is determined to follow her rationalist, democratic and pacifist principles and make her mark. From promise she falls back on compromise. She helps get Canberra its lake, but is unable to stop its anomalous name.
This is characteristic of Moorhouse’s wry, appreciative, disappointed comedy throughout. It also shows the way the novel works both telescopically and microscopically, as Edith’s eye for detail at once reveals and solves problems. Cold Light is better than its prequels because Edith is at home in a place that is being formed in her own time, with all the awkward insight and responsibility that adds. Canberra is an ideal flawed subject, with a double time scale of the transient individuals who make it and the impersonal institutional memory it carries beyond the life of any one person.
And within that compromised environment Edith finds something to value:
‘Although outsiders might laugh at it, their circle was cosmopolitan with a distinctive Australian flavour—or more, a distinctive Canberra flavour. She did begin to feel cosmopolitan in the half-built city that was not a city, in its temporary buildings and streets to nowhere… And the isolation from the world, and even the isolation from Australia at large, gave them an intense observer status about the wider world.’
That conundrum is spoken like a true Canberran. It might representatively be true of the country as a whole.
As the elegant writing of Cold Light unfolds, you might want to ask: Who cares? Who believes like this anymore? Edith has always made the personal political, that’s Canberra’s vice. The political city plays tricks of scale and perspective, seeing the micro as macro. In its odd self-centredness it gets things out of proportion. Cold Light swings from the intimate interiors of Edith’s relationship with her husband Ambrose to the vistas of a city and a polity under construction. Each is as important to Edith as the other, and Canberra itself seems to fade from the novel when Ambrose returns to England. The book must start again.
Yet there are plenty of people in Canberra for whom the political is not particularly personal. It doesn’t come near the immediate concerns of their lives. When I lived there and started writing stories set in Canberra, I was interested in how the social and physical environment might be experienced by those for whom the public service was just a job, those who didn’t have a job, addicts, depressives, self-absorbed academics, those for whom the national capital was a mere backdrop to frustrations, difficult relationships, hard dreams. There are people who experience an everyday alienation in Canberra, who are disengaged from projects of national betterment. They drive by Parliament House without feeling that it belongs to them. Most locals, perhaps. That’s another Canberra conundrum. In those stories I would evoke the clear blue sky that stretches overhead as if to remind the characters of the space they have to do whatever they like. As Les Murray puts it, ‘the impossible’s our summoning dimension’. But sometimes that’s too much to ask. Many Canberrans are probably tired of hearing it. They live with the legacy of Edith’s Canberra, but they’re different from her. She is hopeful to the end, always willing to give it a go. I don’t know if Canberra is like that now.
Writer, artist and former public servant, Sara Dowse no longer lives in Canberra. Her first novel West Block is set in the prime minister’s department after the Whitlam dismissal and is based on her personal experience.
Subhash Jaireth lives in Canberra. His book To Silence: Three Autobiographies was published by Puncher & Wattmann in July 2011. His novel After Love will be published in October 2012.
Nicholas Jose has published novels, essays and a memoir, and is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Adelaide and a member of the UWS Writing and Society Research Centre.