For the Australia Day weekend, I travelled down to Canberra to see my father and stepmother. If you follow this blog you will see that I don’t do this all that often.
I drove down on Friday afternoon and drove back on Monday afternoon.
The road to Canberra must be the road out of Sydney which I have driven the most. Driving at this time of year south of Campbelltown I have a clear recollection of that fateful time when my father drove me and J (with whom I was to live) down to Canberra to take up respectively my job with the public service and her scholarship at the ANU.
Other spots on the way also have numerous associations. Two of my favourite resting spots are the rather fine stone bridge over Black Bob’s Creek, just south of Berrima (you have to drive in a little beyond the rest area for the bridge itself), and Rowes Lagoon, on the Federal Highway between Goulburn and Collector.
Not that either of these places is so signposted any more – instead, in something which I take as symptomatic of the incipient militarisation of much of Australian life in the last 10 or so years (the Howard years, not entirely coincidentally) they have both been renamed after some VC or other as part of the beefing up of the “Remembrance Driveway” (Rowes Lagoon is referred to on that map as Rose Lagoon – see comments and the link in them below – historically it seems to have been Tarago Lagoon or Rose’s Lagoon and was declared a bird sanctuary as early as 1932). It’s all of a piece with the ANZAC Bridge, the Light Horse and Roden Cutler Interchanges. I really hate that. I don’t want to appear ungrateful to our long and not-so-long dead and war heroes, but similarly to patriotism (best when kept under control and in the heart rather than on the sleeve), for my money militarism is at its best when it is confined to times of war. This quasi-RSL nominal takeover reminds me of the proto-fascists of D H Lawrence’s Kangaroo – not so far removed from JWH’s dad’s ex-serviceman leg-up as a dummy rubber planter in the mandate territory of the former German New Guinea, by the way. In any event, my patriotic loyalty is to Henry Bourne Higgins and the Harvester judgment rather than Billy Hughes, General Birdwood and Captain de Groot.
I lived in Canberra for two years (aetat 21-23). That’s quite a long time ago now, and on every return I increasingly feel like Rip Van Winkle. This time I saw that parts of the Benjamin Office Buildings in Belconnen are now being knocked down. Already a number of the Cameron offices (which were the subject of a famous defamation suit) have been demolished: not greatly regretted, I am told, by anyone who worked in them, even if no-one has anything good to say for the modern cubes which are replacing them. It may well be that the new buildings are now only leased by the Commonwealth: certainly, any pretensions to civic or public architecture have been well and truly abandoned.
About 6 months after I moved to Canberra, I bought one of the early Subaru 4-wheel-drive station wagons from an employee of the Canadian High Commission. With Captain [Marcellous] at the wheel, J and I made numerous expeditions to the Canberra hinterland.
I was young and foolhardy. I blush to say that we assayed paths which we should have spared the impact of our wheels, and also, on at least 2 occasions, which were too much for us. Once we had to walk out when the distributor became so fouled with dust that insufficient cylinders were firing to get us up a steep pinch. On the second occasion, driving on the road to Mt Franklin with the intention of riding further on our bicycles past the terminal locked gate, we sustained first one then a second flat tyre, so that instead we ended up riding back for about 10km before we met a forestry truck whose occupants drove us back to the Uriarra Forestry Camp and arranged for an NRMA tow-truck to retrieve the vehicle. By this time I had taken up a PhD scholarship myself, and in the light of the freedom that afforded me, dyed my hair a shade which I can best describe as Telefunken blue. One of the forestry blokes good-humouredly asked me, “You been struck by lightning, mate?”
In memory of these sallies, on Saturday I ventured past the Cotter Dam and out along the road which leads eventually to Mt Franklin or the Brindabella valley.
The country still shows signs of the devastating fire of 2003. The Uriarra Forestry Camp was largely burnt down, and now appears to be being subdivided for sale. Higher up on the range, a grey stubble of dead tree tops rose on every ridge line or ripple. Closer up it looks like this from underneath:
A thunder storm cleared and the sun re-emerged. Coupled with the late afternoon, this provoked an outburst of birdsong. Walking and then driving past Bull’s Head (about 4 km from Picadilly Circus, which is where the road to the Brindabella departs from the road to Mt Franklin) I actually sighted 4 lyre birds, including one male bird which, when it finally realised I was near, flew to a branch and then, after a final and admonitory whistling screech, away in an unlikely and loping flight. I have never before seen even one lyre bird, as usually when you hear them you can never get up close enough before they rush away in the undergrowth, so to see four was quite a treat.
On Sunday, I had dinner with my friend from many years ago, IB, and his family. We decided it might have been 10 or even 11 years since we last saw each other, and it was good to catch up. IB was an ARO (Assistant Research Officer) at the Department of Primary Industry when I was an ARO at the decidedly inglorious Department of Administrative Services, and we had met through a series of inservice courses which our respective departments sent their batches of AROs to in their first year of service. He was a mature age ARO and about 10 years older than me, but it was still a sobering reminder of advancing age to learn that, following a crippling repetitive strain injury, he had been made redundant and is now a superannuant – the first person whom I think of as being a work contemporary who has emerged at the other side of the work-life experience.
IB and I went canoeing on the Molonglo River at the head of Lake Burley-Griffin in a 2-seater canoe which he has just purchased and transported on the roof of the same VW Golf which he drove when I first knew him. It was very pleasant: we paddled up close to two nests where (in one) a black cormorant and (in the other) a white cormorant tended to a brood of chicks. That’s another wildlife first for me. As IB said, this sort of thing is really what Canberra is about.
Otherwise, most of the weekend with my father and stepfather seems to have been spent reading. I read Bevis Hillier’s biography of John Betjeman, Philip Ziegler’s biography of Rupert Hart-Davis (I’ve read his and Lyttleton’s letters before) and Michael Holroyd’s family memoir/autobiography Basil Street Blues. All of these books are my step-mother’s. You can see there is something of a common thread between them. There are still many many volumes of and about James Lees-Milne to go.
Actually, when I say I read these, except for the Holroyd, this was mostly a re-reading held over from previous visits. I’ve also dipped into J L-M before but I’m not sure if I will ever be up to the complete body of work by or about him. And the more I read about Hart-Davis, the less attracted I am to him. Class resentment has something to do with this, I am afraid. For that matter, I started [re]reading the Betjeman volumes because I have recently been listening to a terrific song-setting by Madeleine Dring of his poem “Business Girls.” This poem is a vision of a thousand single working women having baths in their flats in sub-divided large houses in Camden in London in the early post-war years. It is often cited as a poem expressing sympathy for their lives, but I think you have to swallow a lot of class-spirit and forgive it in the face of the final stanza:
Rest you there, poor unbelov’d ones,
Lap your loneliness in heat.
All too soon the tiny breakfast,
Trolley-bus and windy street!
There is a fine line between sympathy and condescension and this crosses it. Who’s to say they are unbeloved? Is that just because they are not the sort of aristocratic gels that Betjeman fancied? On googling, I was gratified to have my further doubt about the scenario for this poem confirmed. It seemed fundamentally unlikely that the secretarial class would generally enjoy the luxury of a morning bath: only a poet accustomed to gentleman’s hours could have supposed so. As Terrence Kilmartin commented,
“It is a pity that most business girls, like my secretary…, have their baths in the evening – but I don’t think that matters much.”
I think it matters more than Kilmartin allowed.
Further in this vein, one thing which struck me about Michael Holroyd’s book was the way in which he approached what he evidently considered to be the long decline of his family’s fortunes over the twentieth-century and his parents’ and grandparents’ lives – a decline which appears to have been cushioned by a reasonably healthy opening balance, financially speaking, and apparently little necessity to earn a regular income as a result. Though Holroyd treats his family as failures, and affects even to include his own early career in this (on the grounds that until about 1977 his income as a writer only averaged ₤1500 a year) his career was actually enabled by the private income which they managed to provide him whilst he made his start. The extent to which literary and artistic achievement are underwritten (because they require time) by private income remains under-acknowledged. Brett Whitely, Martin Sharp, Patrick White are just a few Australian examples. Undoubtedly they were talented, but there must have been many others possibly equally so who never got the chance they had.
Holroyd has written a sequel, Mosaic, which I intend to search out. That book, in part, follows further the stories of two upwardly-mobile adventurers against whom the fortunes of his family, one way or another, foundered, and in particular the young woman whom his grandfather stopped to give a lift to in the general strike of 1926 and whom he was so taken by that he only returned home (considerably poorer) eight years later. Holroyd’s hostility to this fortune-eroder (subtext: gold-digger) is barely concealed in Basil Street Blues.
Driving back on Monday I made a detour to the Bungonia Gorge State Recreation Area, which includes a truly vertiginous “Look-Down.”
– Not that photos (or at least my photos) can ever really capture this sort of thing.
Bungonia itself is a curious backwater. I stopped and looked at the striking Anglican church, and only later learnt that the (not terribly prepossessing) Catholic church is apparently the oldest Catholic church building remaining on the mainland.