The Nash Cap

I have just spent the weekend in Canberra, visiting my sister. Every time I go to Canberra I find myself desperately wanting to love it, to take it to my heart and appreciate it.

Once we get out of Campbelltown on the freeway the space starts to open up, it becomes flatter and browner. The hill and mountains that do spring up are covered in trees with the odd gaping slash through them where huge towers run through them, carrying wires for something I no nothing about. I start to sense the space and suddenly feel free of Sydney, as if I am entering a totally different place. Once we get to Lake George I am always quite overcome. I find it spellbinding. I start looking forward to the different environment of Canberra, somehow thinking it’s going to free me of something, free me to do something, I have no idea what.

Then we enter the Australian Capital Territory. Northbourne St is wide and usually free of traffic (on the weekends when we visit). The ‘govvie’ blocks of units don’t set a good scene and I am always struck by their strange presence. In a city so obviously well organised they are ‘allowed’ to be there, it’s almost as if this is their proper place but if it is it’s according to a scheme that confuses me.

The inner suburbs of Canberra are like middle-ring suburbs of Sydney. Townhouse villages, small shopping centres, schools and a lot of space. Too much space. There are no houses crammed on top of each others, except for the socially townplanner-acceptable townhouses. Planned cramp. There’s no haphazard architecture, no spectacular graffiti, no dirt. There’s a lot of green, a lot of strategically placed parks.

To move to middle and outer suburbs you get onto roads where the speed limit is at least 80. The road runs between forest or what seems like National Park. Suddenly some houses spring up and I am always surprised to find that I am still in Canberra. I thought I’d left it.

I find this excess of space disturbing. I think it contributes to my inability to “get my head around” Canberra. In Sydney it’s easy to orientate yourself in suburbs through the predominant cultures and classes. There’s a ‘feel’ to places that enables you to form a picture in your mind, however wrong it may be, of the essence of the place. This is what I find so difficult about Canberra. I don’t dislike the place I just can’t come to grips with it and every time I go there I find myself struggling to pin it down and it just will not be pinned. I think it’s the space, the organisation, the formality of the place. I think it’s also the fact that I often go there on the weekend when it’s empty. I usually hang around the inner suburbs and I get the feeling that everyone empties out into the outer suburbs on weekends. The centre seems to be for work only.

So, I just realised there’s no mention of books in this post. Well, one of the reasons I go to Canberra, (aside from visiting my sister of course), is to visit the second-hand bookshops in Fyshwick. I love them. They’re cheaper than Sydney and the stock is usually of a high quality. You also don’t have to fight for good stuff like you do at Gleebooks et al. I’m not going to tell you their names as then you would know where the good stuff is – at least this way I will force you to do your own research.

This time we felt there should be a strict limit on what we spent so we came home with three verse novels (Les Murray, Dorothy Porter and Vikram Seth), a couple of Kurt Vonneguts and a hardcover copy of the Maltese Falcon. Not much at all really.

Oh, and I have just finished reading Helen Garner’s Joe Cinque book so the trip this time was shadowed with recollections from that book. We considered doing a ghoul’s run down Antill St in Dickson but quite sensibly decided against it.


  1. One of those bookshops starts with a “C” and has three rooms, yes?

    I spent the morning there with the visiting olds and came home with brand spanking new (old) Phillip Roth, Deception and Sabbath’s Theatre. VERY EXCITED!

  2. Yes, one of them does start with a ‘C’ and does have three rooms. Actually two of them start with a ‘C’ and they both have three rooms!

  3. Ah, you see, the trick to Canberra is that it contains mental space to read, with all the books in those lovely shops (and yes, I know which ones you mean) and those lovely wide physical spaces. Canberra cannot be pigeon-holed, and that’s why I never really feel the urge to be anywhere else, especially in March when the Lifeline Book Fair cranks up.

    I’m glad you didn’t do the ghoul-ride. The poor fellow who bought the house (before the courtcase) wasn’t told its history by the realtor (who was under pressure to sell as fast as possible by the former investment-owner) and found himself suddenly living in a ‘novelty’ house with two young daughters who freaked out when told that one of their bedrooms was a murder site, and the press constantly photographing his front yard. I really feel for him.

  4. Oooh, the Lifeline book fair. I didn’t know about that! Tell me more!

    There was a case in Sydney where a house was sold without the would-be buyers being told of it’s ghoulish past (the one where Sef Gonzales killed his family). They managed to get their deposit back after they found out the history of the house. I feel for the poor guy in Canberra. He won’t even be able to sell it, not for years when people have forgotten about it.

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