A novel that deals with urban design, planning and the establishment of new cities is an unusual beast, but that’s part of what drew me to read the new book by veteran writer Frank Moorhouse, Cold Light.

The protagonist, Edith Campbell Berry, works for a time at the body planning the development of Canberra in the early 1950s, the forerunner of the National Capital Development Commission. She’s returned from working for the now defunct League of Nations with hopes of becoming Australia’s first female Ambassador.

This is the third and final instalment of the trilogy Moorhouse has been writing over the last twenty years. The first book, Grand Days, won the S.A. Premier’s Award for Fiction and the second, Dark Palace, won the 2001 Miles Franklin Award.

I was an enthusiastic Moorhouse reader many years ago and read his first six fiction books. But I’d somehow forgotten about him and didn’t even know he was writing the trilogy until the Grattan Institute included Cold Light on its latest recommended summer reading list for the Prime Minister.

This is a fascinating book about life in Australia, mainly in the 1950s, but manages to stretch at the end to a meeting between Edith and Gough Whitlam. It looks into the task of creating a new capital city, the way the bureaucracy and politics of the day worked, the appeal and machinations of the Communist Party of Australia, the life of the diplomatic community, uranium policy, and even imports a good dose of Bloomsbury. And it shows how hard it was for a married woman working in the bureaucracy in those days.

It also works well – really well – as a novel and I never felt I suffered for not having read the earlier volumes. The unconventional sexuality might seem excessive to some readers but as I recall that’s just what you get with Moorhouse.

But this is not a review of Cold Light (here’s a review by Peter Pierce in the SMH). It’s the stuff about the planning of Canberra in the 1950s that’s most interesting to The Urbanist.

Moorhouse completely convinced me that his characters are looking with the values and perspective of someone of that time and period. That’s a substantial achievement for a novelist. I loved this line from the worldly Edith, where she describes Canberra in the 50s as offering “the privileges and discomforts of three modes of living in one place – the capital, the rural life and exile”.

She’s spent the preceding twenty odd years in Europe and that’s partly why – rather than despite – she loves the sheer suburbanness of Walter and Marion Griffin’s vision for Canberra and is keen to protect and nurture it. She values:

the relationship to nature – The Garden City – to see a tree when you awoke and to see trees during your working day. To work among trees. Of the value of this she had no doubt. It must be a Garden City to serve clean air and health.

Edith wouldn’t comprehend the contemporary focus on urbanism – she’d have been horrified:

She saw that Griffin’s geometric design would identify Canberra as a distinctive place – that the streets and roads that broke away from the old grid pattern were themselves a work of some art and reminded people that they were in a special place

She would be given short-shrift by most planners and urban designers today for her views on culs-de-sacs:

There were some cul de sacs and looped streets. She liked culs-de-sac – they were safe compounds offering security. She would have liked more.

But many would endorse her romantic longing for a series of self-contained villages:

Perhaps there was no need for ‘a centre’ – rather, many small centres in neighbourhoods. The idea of the city centre was an idea from older times.

One bit I found particularly appealing is the naming of the new lake. Edith is puzzled that the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, wants to name the lake ‘Burley Griffin’. She knows Burley is his middle name, not his last name – he signed his name W.B. Griffin. She would prefer it was named Lake Marion but at least wants it named correctly. She takes the issue up with Menzies:

She gathered her nerve and grabbed a moment with the Prime Minister in the corridor. She told him that Lake ‘Burley Griffin’ was an anomaly. With stately irritation, he said, ‘Then we have an anomaly. It is to be called Lake Burley Griffin. It is sonorous, Berry, sonorous. “Upon famous Parnassus, or the sonorous shore”. He walked on, leaving her stranded in the corridor on a classical quotation.

Edith also thinks about the new profession of planners and the challenge of creating a new city. Some great insight that still applies today:

She wondered a lot about who knew how to do it, this city planning. If this new breed – these intelligent planners – could disagree so strongly, it might indicate that there was more than one way to do it. That many of the decisions of planning were matters of preference and aesthetic discernment rather than correctness.

She suspected that urban design was one of those new professions where in the early stage everyone had to pretend to know more than they did and to proclaim stronger views than experience validated. It was in this time, before the practice of a new profession has evolved into conventional wisdom or standard ways, that intuitive geniuses such as the Griffins had most to offer. They were unobstructed by the poor-spirited.

This novel is packed with insights and observations. One that struck me was that even in the early 1950s, some consulates weren’t in Canberra. A priority of Menzies and the bureaucrats was to drag them to the Molonglo Valley. Creating a successful capital was an enormous undertaking that entailed much more than protecting and implementing Griffin’s plan.

This is a long book and Edith’s involvement with planning is only a small part, a chapter or two effectively. But there’s so much else about life in Canberra and life in Australia that’s fascinating, not to mention Edith’s various personal travails in her romantic and professional lives. I was particularly enthralled with the history of the Communist Party and it’s social significance in the 50s – Edith’s brother is a very active member.