Feelings of deja vu
January 18, 2012 — 22:06

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: 7 Writers Anthologies Canberra  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 16


I have decided to call my first blog post ‘Feelings of déjà vu’ because I’ve recently been back to Canberra, for a book launch and an exhibition opening, and these visits have brought back many memories and images from my life in the national capital. I lived in Canberra for thirty years before returning to Victoria in 2008.

‘The Women who made Canberra’ exhibition, on at the Canberra Museum and Gallery , is part of the city’s centenary celebrations, and open till March 2013. It features women who contributed to Canberra’s political, social, sporting and cultural life over the past hundred years.

It includes a possum cloak belonging to Matilda House, an elder who identifies with the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people of Canberra.


Matilda House’s possum cloak, photographed by David Paterson for the Canberra Museum and Gallery


Matilda House performed the welcome to country ceremony at the opening of the 42nd Parliament in Canberra on 12 February 2008. It was the first time a welcome to country ceremony had been held for the opening of the Federal Parliament. As Mrs House explained on that day, “A welcome to country acknowledges our people and pays respect to our ancestors’ spirits who have created the lands…It is a good and honest and decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.”

Mrs House burned the designs on the cloak, drawing on imagery of the Murrumbidgee River, the Brindabella Range, bush tucker and the wedge-tailed eagle and brolga.

The youngest woman in the exhibition is Lauren Jackson, born in 1981 and now an internationally famous basketball star.

And my writer’s group, 7 Writers, is featured as well.

This is my favourite photograph of us, taken by Brenda Runnegar. The seven are, from left to right: Sara Dowse, Marion Halligan, Margaret Barbalet, me, Dorothy Horsfield,  Suzanne Edgar and Marian Eldridge.

The display for the exhibition includes a selection of our books and notes taken by Suzanne Edgar at one of our monthly meetings.

We started meeting as a writers’ workshop in the early 1980s and continued until after Marian Eldridge’s death in 1997. We became known for our longevity and the vigour of our discussions (some of which were televised!) I think we continue to be of interest to the reading public because of a mistaken, but persistent view that Canberra is somehow inimical to the creative life. The myth is fading, but it still pops up in the most surprising places. I’ve written about it in an essay called Disturbing Undertones.

For anyone interested in reading more about ‘7 Writers’ and other Australian literary communities, an excellent book has recently been published called Republics of Letters: Literary Communities in Australia. Our chapter, by D’Arcy Randall, is called ‘Seven Writers and Australia’s Literary Capital’.

While I was in Canberra, I recorded an interview as part of the publicity for The Invisible Thread : One Hundred Years of Words. The anthology includes a story of mine called ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’.

Here is an impressionistic account of the interview. When I sat down to write the account, it came out differently from the way I intended; I think of it as an example of the unpredictable way that memories surface.


Two kayaks are going past, as silently as swans. I am sitting in the shade of European trees, around the corner from where both my children were born, from where the hospital used to be that so spectacularly killed a girl when it imploded. And I think of my son, of whom I am about to speak, who lay desperately ill in that same hospital, only eleven months after he came out into the world inside it. And how long it took him! And how happy and exhausted I was! I am not here to speak about the birth, but about the illness, which gave rise to the story which began my love affair with Canberra. A literary love affair, but that makes it sound too cerebral, too much a matter of the mind alone. My story, ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’, has found its way into an anthology called The Invisible Thread, celebrating a hundred years since the founding of our national capital. A curious word that, ‘founding’ – like being born and yet not like it at all.

I’m here to be interviewed about literary Canberra, and I give my interview, under the shadow of the trees, but in my heart thirty years have lifted off. Thirty years lift off my shoulders and I’m around the corner, with the hospital rising at my back, and my son whom I cannot bear to look at no bigger than a skinny mouse with tubes going every which way, and on the lake an old man in a long coat, going round the edges, looking for a way out…

I’ve written a great deal about Canberra, from fictional and non fictional points of view. But I know that, now I’ve found them again, nothing will ever again replace those earliest images, and the desperation that gave rise to them.




  • Suzanne Edgar

    I found this website lively, interesting and inviting as regards Johnston’s work, particularly as she focuses on the stimulus of the Canberra writing scene; if I hadn’t already read her fine novels I would be moved to do so following this taste of her style.

    January 19, 2013 — 5:16
    • Dorothy Johnston

      Thanks, Sue, for the compliments! I hope to write more posts about Canberra’s literary life. It’s amazing how many people still can’t get their heads around it

      January 20, 2013 — 1:38
  • D'Arcy Randall

    Thank you for creating this beautiful new website, with information on your books and convenient links to essays. It’s terrific to see Seven Writers featured in the “Women who made Canberra” exhibition. You all certainly deserve the renewed attention.

    January 19, 2013 — 18:21
    • Dorothy Johnston

      Wonderful to hear from you, D’Arcy, and congratulations on the Australian’s review of ‘Republics of Letters’. I’ll be following this up in future posts.

      January 20, 2013 — 1:45
  • So we now can post comments. Another exciting birth, Dorothy, perhaps not as momentous as the one you referred to, but significant nonetheless. As you say, the years have lifted off. Hard to believe it all happened such a long time ago and our two sick babies, both treated in that ghost of that hospital, are now thriving men in their thirties. Best of luck in this new venture and for all your writing.

    January 19, 2013 — 21:57
    • Dorothy Johnston

      Hello, Sara,

      Yes, memories can be so strange, can’t they? And the presence/absence of the old hospital is ghostly, as you say – perhaps because of that terrible implosion. Thanks for your good wishes!

      January 20, 2013 — 1:48
  • Oh so glad to see this Dorothy … and so see your lovely new fresh looking site on which we can comment. I have added you to my blog roll. I look forward to more posts on literary Canberra and literary elsewhere too, even!

    January 20, 2013 — 7:54
  • Dorothy Johnston

    Thank you, Whispering Gums! It feels like I’m having an extra special birthday, or something, with the birth of my new site.

    January 20, 2013 — 22:36
  • […] And it’s taken me back to D’Arcy Randall’s chapter on 7 Writers. […]

    January 20, 2013 — 23:01
  • Maureen Cashman

    Congratulations on your engaging debut blog, Dorothy. In addition to reminders of the history of literary Canberra, the achievements of the 7 Writers and your own literary achievements so far, it provides a great model for the rest of us. I suppose modesty prevents you from mentioning the moral and professional support you’ve given other Canberra writers, even now that you don’t live here. Incidentally, I think the impressionistic account of your interview for ‘The Invisible Thread’ is spot-on for your story ‘The Boatman of Lake Burley Griffin’.

    January 21, 2013 — 3:41
  • Dorothy Johnston

    Maureen, good to see you here! And thank you for the kind words. I’ve been thinking about literary communities, in response to D’Arcy Randall’s chapter on 7 writers. It’s such an elusive concept, but special and to be cherished when it works..

    January 21, 2013 — 4:08
  • What a wonderful photo of the Seven Writers! Great to see your new site up and running. Looking forward to more posts.

    January 26, 2013 — 2:49
  • Hello Irma,

    thanks for visiting my new site and for your comment.


    January 26, 2013 — 3:37
  • […] a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers’ group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers’ workshop […]

    March 17, 2014 — 5:04
  • […] a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers’ group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers’ workshop […]

    March 17, 2014 — 5:07
  • […] a founding member of the influential ‘7 Writers’ group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers’ workshop […]

    March 18, 2014 — 5:10
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