Simple acts of bearing witness – Meanjin’s Canberra centenary issue.
March 17, 2013 — 23:52

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: Canberra Canberra writers literary communities short stories  Tags: , ,   Comments: 14



Canberra has turned a hundred, and March is the birthday celebration month. Meanjin’s centenary issue was released last week and I’m lucky enough to have a story included; it’s called ‘Mrs B’. At just over 2,000 words, my story is a modest contribution, and indeed fiction is modestly represented in the issue as a whole. There are four short stories, compared with sixteen non-fiction pieces – essay, memoir, the section titled ‘Perspectives’ which begins the issue, and the superb Meanjin Papers section about Walter and Marion Griffin. Add to this the conversation with Christos Tsiolkas and the twelve poems, and you’ll see what I mean.

Does this matter? Not a bit. The qualities I look for in a good short story – originality, attention to detail, authenticity of voice – are there in abundance in the non-fiction pieces, and – it would be a surprise if this weren’t the case – in the poetry as well. I read the issue in several sittings – or rather lyings on the couch – over the weekend, and, as I sat down to write about it, I realized that it was the simple acts of bearing witness that moved me the most, the way the different contributors have of homing in and saying, ‘Yes, this is way it is; this is the way it was, and is.’

I’ll go further and say that I believe it is these simple acts of bearing witness, rather than arguments and counter-arguments, that will, in the end, dismantle the myths about our national capital, myths too well known, and enumerated by me in other places, to repeat here.

I’m not going to refer to every contribution that impressed me; this blog post is by not meant to be any kind of comprehensive review; but I’ll begin with Andrew Croome’s quiet and reverent description of Mount Stromlo after the 2003 bushfires, and his comments on the observatory’s history, as an example of the kind of ‘witnessing’ I mean. On the subject of fire, there is the excellent poem, ‘As Flames Were My Only Witness’ by Russell Erwin. And going back in time, David Headon’s ‘The Genius and the Gypsy: Walt and Marion Griffin in Australia and India’ is a piece I cannot recommend highly enough. If you read the issue for nothing else, read it for this. Headon’s scholarship, his elegant prose, and his own humanity shine through.

It is fitting that monumental buildings are given their due place, but it’s the ironic, scaled, human perspective that drew me in and made me want to read about them. Two of the memoir pieces – ‘Very Happy to be Here’ by Yolande Norris, and ‘Constructing a City, Constructing a Life’ by Marion Halligan are good examples of a refusal to be over-awed by generalised assumptions, but to state, in lyrical and careful prose, what is.

I plan to write more posts about Canberra’s younger generation of writers in the coming months, as well as Canberra’s not-so-young-any-more, but not as well known as they should be writers too.


  • Well, I’d love to see it. I ordered a copy at Pages & Pages, the Mosman bookshop that was listed on the website as a supplier but they told me they don’t get Meanjins anymore unless it’s a special order because no one in this neck of the woods buys it off their shelf. Pity. We trade beauty for intelligence, broadly speaking, around here.

    Sorry I wasn’t asked to contribute, didn’t even know it was coming up, though Subhash and Nick Jose and I had our go about Canberra in a ‘conversation’ about Moorhouse’s Cold Light in an earlier issue. Happy to hear about David Headon’s piece – he’s such a terrific guy. And congratulations for being one of four fiction pieces!

    Will get back to you when my copy arrives and I’ve read it.

    March 18, 2013 — 4:48
  • Hello Sara,

    thanks a lot for your feedback, and your good wishes. Yes, I saw your comments on ‘Cold Light’ on Meanjon’s website. I thought they were pertinent and well-expressed. For the record, I wasn’t asked to contribute to the Canberra issue; I came across a reference to it on the website and sent off a submission.

    March 18, 2013 — 5:14
    • Can’t be helped if I’m not on the qui vive – in any case I’ve had my say about Canberra. A thirty-year interlude at the centre of my life. I’m really pleased that the city has grown so in my absence – I know people who have moved from Sydney and can’t believe their good luck.

      Hard to know though what it will be like when the coalition is elected. We used to be able to tell the Libs were in office by the ease of getting a parking spot in Civic.

      March 18, 2013 — 6:01
  • Great post Dorothy … I love your “perspective”. You are right, I think, that the “simple aspect of bearing witness” could achieve more than arguments and counter-arguments. Let’s keep witnessing … it certainly doesn’t work being defensive!

    I enjoyed your story too … the ending is such a beautiful image.

    (BTW I also loved the conversation with Tsiolkas … and will probably write that up separately).

    March 18, 2013 — 9:34
  • Thanks, Whispering Gums.

    I was very impressed by the conversation with Christos Tsiolkas too. He comes across as a writer of uncompromising intelligence and integrity. And to think, I went to his first book launch…

    March 18, 2013 — 22:37
    • He does, doesn’t he? I hear that he’s a very gentle man to meet. Was that Loaded? I need to read more of his novels, but perhaps I’ll wait for the next one to come out called, I hear, Barracuda! Now that’s a title to give one pause!

      March 20, 2013 — 11:47
  • Hello again, Sara,

    I agree with you about the pleasure it can give to watch a city growing and extending itself in surprising ways. And I agree as well about the parking spots in Civic! Everyone who has been whingeing away about small things is going to get a terrible shock come September – but at least they’ll have a park…

    March 18, 2013 — 22:44
  • Did you know that Tsiolkas was a neighbour of mine in Turner?

    March 20, 2013 — 7:31
  • Hello Whispering Gums,

    Yes, the novel was ‘Loaded’. I see you’ve got a new post about the Tsiolkas conversation. I must read it!

    March 21, 2013 — 0:45
  • Hi Sara,

    No I didn’t know that. Was he a good neighbour? Do you think we’re up to famous writers’ houses in Canberra yet, or is that still to come? I don’t live far from the house Henry Handel Richardson lived in as a child, and I’ve been pondering such things…

    March 21, 2013 — 0:48
    • Well, I’ve got my copy of Meanjin and have read almost everything in it. A terrific issue. I remember Mrs B and have been reminded of how sensitively and imaginatively it’s written. Liked Marion’s memoir piece and Dave Headon’s on the Griffins, Paul Daley on the Ngambri and Gideon Haigh’s on the PM centres. All the memoirs – so different. Gulped it down in one afternoon after picking up the copy in Mosman.

      Tsiolkas was a quiet neighbour and I didn’t get to know him well as I introduced myself around the time I was leaving for Canada. He came to the farewell party on Froggatt St. Seemed somewhat shy and perhaps not sure what to make of me. Perhaps he was worried as we all are that I would eat into too much of his time. It took me a long time to know he was there – he lived in the house only a few doors away owned by an old student of Lynn’s. I’m sure that if I’d stayed we would have got to know each other better and found that we had a lot in common.

      March 23, 2013 — 20:03
  • Oh – as for heritage houses. I wrote an article in the Canberra Times about the lack of interest when I was forced by the Canadian capital gains tax provisions to sell Froggatt St. Now that house is gone. But Marion has lived in the same Hackett house for years. Maybe it could start there. And BTW I really liked her portrait/s reproduced on the inside cover. Did you know that I’ve been doing small portraits of fellow writers over the years? Problem is that they’re in different mediums and of course the quality varies but I’ve been thinking of sticking them all together – with their words. One of those many projects of mine that will require grand longevity for fruition …

    March 23, 2013 — 20:11
  • Hello again, Sara.

    No I didn’t know about your portraits. I would love to see them! Speaking of neighbours, I was a neighbour of Leanne Crisp, in Lyneham – Leanne is the artist who painted Marion’s portrait. I used to enjoy going to visit her because I loved the idea that there was an artist beavering away around the corner from me. A different take on suburbia – you never know what’s going on behind closed doors. I remember seeing portraits of Marion in all stages of completion in Leanne’s studio. As for famous literary houses, or literary places – one of my favourite stories concerns not a real writer, but an imaginary place that became ‘real’ through literature – the seat the devil sat on when he came to Moscow, in Mikhail Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’, that I believe tourists who loved the novel still ask to see…

    March 24, 2013 — 1:42
    • I have sat on that seat myself. It’s in Pioneer Ponds (maybe the name’s changed now – can’t remember if that was Soviet or pre and post). Also went to Bulgakov’s apartment building where portions of the text of Master and Margarita are scribbled all over the walls of the stairwell by his fans. Nothing like it anywhere in Oz or perhaps any other western city – certainly not Canberra. Maybe I’m wrong, living the secluded life that I do. But Russians then adored their writers, adored literature, in a way that’s very hard for us to get a grip on. Maybe that’s changed too.

      March 24, 2013 — 4:42
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