Art and Life

by John Quiggin on March 15, 2013

I’ve been a big fan of Frank Moorhouse’s Edith trilogy since I first encountered it nearly a decade ago. The first two volumes, Grand Days and Dark Palace dealt with the heroine’s adventures (political and sexual) as a young and optimistic Australian staff member with the doomed League of Nations. That was a fascinating glimpse of a world that had vanished well before I was born, and showed up Moorhouse’s capacity for imaginative recreation of that world, as well as the marvellous character of Edith Campbell Berry.

In the third volume, Cold Light, Edith turns up in early postwar Canberra, and there’s a sudden shift of view for me (and I guess, also for Moorhouse). The story runs into the early 1970s, when I was growing up and going to the Australian National University in Canberra. Edith is an observer and occasional participant in events ranging from the planning of Canberra to Menzies’ attempt to ban the Communist Party. Not only that, but most of the characters, with the exception of Edith and those in her immediate circle, are real people. Notable examples include Australian PMs Menzies and Whitlam, but also some academics from the early days of the ANU. I knew quite a few of them, and some of them even knew me: Heinz Arndt, for example, paid me the backhanded compliment of describing me as “a very dangerous young man” [1].

Reading and visualising a book so close to your own life is an odd experience – I was starting to wonder if I would appear in a crowd scene, perhaps outside Parliament House after Whitlam’s dismissal. For younger readers, of course, the early days of Canberra belong to the same dim past as the Kellogg-Briand Pact. They will, I think, find the book just as rewarding as I did, though in a very different way.

fn1. Arndt had been a leftwing social democrat in his early years in Australia, but moved sharply to the right later. In mischievous moods, I sometimes cited, with approval and without mention of his subsequent evolution, his early work advocating bank nationalization.