Tim The Yowie Man: Room with a view
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Tim The Yowie Man: Room with a view

With a sense of anticipation, I creep up the narrow wooden staircase, hanging on tightly with both hands to the single railing. They are the steepest stairs leading up to a study I've ever encountered. But this isn't any study, I'm about to enter the den of Australia's most well-known historian.

Sebastian Clark, Manning's eldest son clambers up the stairway to his father's roof-top study.

Sebastian Clark, Manning's eldest son clambers up the stairway to his father's roof-top study.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

In 1953, soon after this attic study was built, but not completely furnished, renowned Australian poet Alec Hope clambered up these very stairs and while peering towards Mt Ainslie and Black Mountain prophesised, "I see books being written here".

Manning Clark at work in his office.

Manning Clark at work in his office.

Photo: Supplied

How right he was, for it was in this very eyrie that eminent historian Manning Clark (1915 -1991) penned almost every single word of his epic six-volume A History of Australia (1962 – 1987), along with many of his memoirs, speeches and essays.

Crawling on all fours onto the carpeted landing at the top of the stairs, I eventually stumble into the study, a place that has been on my bucket list to visit since Manning Clark House (MCH) as it is now known, was first opened to the public almost 20 years ago.

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One of several floor-to ceiling bookshelves in Manning Clark's roof-top study.

One of several floor-to ceiling bookshelves in Manning Clark's roof-top study.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

With a wooden desk at a long panoramic window, and with floor to ceiling bookshelves crammed with Australiana and literature from further afield, it's just the sort of studious place you can imagine a professor of Clark's status penning a series of such famous tomes.

"It's not that much different to how father left it" announces Sebastian Clark, the historian's eldest son, and my guide for my long-awaited snoop through this inner south landmark.

On the desk, still strewn with paperwork and in front of Clark's engraved name plate from the Australian National University (ANU), where he was Professor of Australian History for four decades, are several empty fountains pen ink jars and nib pens.

"That's the result of over 30 years of writing five-and-a-half days a week in here" says Sebastian pointing to a small depression at the front and centre of the desk. "He wrote three drafts for every volume" further explains Sebastian who opens a filing cabinet and pulls a copy of the hand written drafts, adding "all the originals are in the National Library [of Australia] now." Clark wouldn't have passed as a doctor for his scrawl is surprisingly neat.

Apart from the books and desk, obvious is the natural light which streams in through the north-facing window. "It was actually a little too bright in here in summer," reveals Sebastian, adding "after several years of sweating it out during the warmer months, father added an awning and bookshelf along the top of the window."

Looking out over the sprawling garden, although the view isn't as expansive at when it was first enjoyed by Clark and Hope back in 1953 (they don't call Forrest a leafy suburb for no reason), you can still see the hulk of Black Mountain to the left and the tell-tale tip of the spire of St Andrews Presbyterian Church to the right.

While the study is this home's pièce de résistance, once downstairs (yes, I successfully negotiated the descent despite my poor choice of footwear) it's clear that the rest of MCH is also far from the design of a standard 1950s Canberra home.

"Built by Jack Dorman in 1953 to leading Australian modernist architect Robin Boyd's plans, with exposed beams, sloping ceilings, and huge glass panel windows, it really was quite radical by the standards of 1950s Canberra," says Sebastian, adding "the unique design certainly raised the eyebrows of some neighbours."

One of the tiles in the bathroom at Manning Clarke house designed by Yvonne Boyd.

One of the tiles in the bathroom at Manning Clarke house designed by Yvonne Boyd.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

The most striking of these floor-to-ceiling glass windows takes up the entire north-facing side of the spacious sitting room.

As big as the glass panel is, it's not the original. During one of the family's regular games of backyard cricket, Clark, despatched a long hop in the direction of the window. "As a cricketer of substance he knew to play it along the ground, which he did," recalls Sebastian, adding, "but he forgot to take into account the slight bump in the lawn a few metres short of the window."

You guessed it. Apparently Clark's beautifully played cover drive hit this rise at speed and become airborne, smashing the window to smithereens. "As the person who hit it, you think father would have taken responsibility for the damage, but instead he blamed me for my poor delivery," laughs Sebastian.

It was also in the sitting room where according to Sebastian, "back in 1957, a student who lived nearby stumbled in late one afternoon and challenged father at a game of ping pong."

"He had clearly had a few drinks and father was worried he'd fall through the window," says Sebastian. Thankfully the shaky student remained on his feet, and after being well and truly beaten, stumbled off, tail between his legs. Oh, and the name of the slightly inebriated student? "A certain Robert James Lee Hawke" muses Sabastian, explaining that at the time the future prime minister was undertaking doctoral studies in the area of arbitration law in the law department at the ANU.

However, Hawke wasn't the only luminary to call in on the Clarks. The list of regular guests reads like a roll call of the who's who of Australian cultural life between 1950 and 1980 and includes Gough Whitlam, Nobel Prize winning novelist Patrick White and celebrated artist Arthur Boyd.

In fact, taking pride of place in the sitting room above a pair of antique Italian renaissance-style Savonarola chairs is a photo of an oil painting of the history professor and his beloved dog, Tuppence, captured in 1972 by Boyd at the Clark family's south coast hideaway. The original is on display in the National Portrait Gallery. Who'd have known at the time of the painting that both men would go on to be awarded the Australian of the Year gongs – Clarke in 1980 and Boyd in 1995.

The artistic flair of Boyd's wife is also on display in the house, with a number of Yvonne Boyd's delicately hand-painted tiles in both the bathroom and kitchen.

Poet David Campbell also left his mark in MCH. "One evening, during a dinner party Campbell fell onto the floor and right through it … thankfully he wasn't badly injured but the floorboards needed immediate replacing", discloses Sebastian as he pulls back the dining room rug to reveal the replacement pieces of timber.

What caused these two floorboards to break during a dinner party at Manning Clark House?

What caused these two floorboards to break during a dinner party at Manning Clark House?

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

The elevated kitchen overlooking the dining room was also innovative for the 1950s. This meant Clark's wife Dymphna, a formidable scholar in her own right, could join in the discussions around the dining table while preparing the next course, which as Sebastian recollects "were often quite robust."

"Much of the house is very much as it was at the time of mother's death in May 2000, but the main change in the house between then and now are the number of books," explains Sebastian, adding, "there used to be about 1500, now there's over 10,000." And he's right, there are bookcases everywhere, including above the hallway leading to the bathroom.

However, with family photos and personal items, crammed into every alcove and on every display cabinet, you could easily be excused for thinking the Clark's are still here.

In fact, Leigh Watson a former Director of MCH confesses that she believes Clark's spirit lingers. "Almost every time I went up to the study there new items mysterious appeared on the desk" she told me in 2011.

While Sebastian bluntly dismisses any suggestions of a ghost, he agrees with me that although his parents are physically no longer walking the floorboards of MCH, there is a real sense that their social and intellectual contributions to Australian culture live on here.

Regardless of your political bent; historians, scholars and anyone who appreciates Canberra's past will enjoy a visit here, especially to the roof-top study. Just be sure to wear shoes with decent grip.

Fact File

Rear view of Manning Clark House, with roof-top study at centre.

Rear view of Manning Clark House, with roof-top study at centre.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man)

Manning Clark House: This national scholarly and cultural organisation is based in the former home of Australian historian Manning Clark and his wife Dymphna. It hosts an eclectic program of conferences, book launches, concerts, dinners and discussions. 11 Tasmania Circuit, Forrest. www.manningclark.org.au

Tours: Run by volunteers (and occasionally by Sebastian or one of his siblings), 12-4pm on Mondays or groups via prior arrangement. Cost: by Donation. Ph: 6295 9433.

Folklore: It's a long-standing Canberra myth that Manning Clark accessed his study via a rope ladder and then pulled it up to ensure no one bothered him while he was writing. Although the steepness of the stairs may suggest otherwise, I'm reliably informed that this was never the case.

Tim's Tip: If the clay maquette of Manning Clark in the hall looks familiar, that's because it's the prototype for the bronze version (by sculptress Ninon Geier) which was on display for many years at an ANU library.

Cricket capers: In the late 1930's, as a student in England, Manning Clark played several first class games for Oxford as wicket-keeper batsman. "Although he was very angry when dropped, in retrospect it was one of the best things that happened to him as it allowed him to focus on his studies," explains Sebastian.

More: Manning Clark House: Reflections by Trevor Creighton, Peter Freeman and Roslyn Russell (Canberra 2002) is available for purchase at MCH for $20

WHERE IN CANBERRA?

TYM Where in Canberra THIS week.

TYM Where in Canberra THIS week.

Photo: Tim the Yowie Man

Clue: Going around in circles

Degree of difficulty: Medium

Where in Canberra LAST week. Photo: Glenn Dando

Where in Canberra LAST week. Photo: Glenn Dando

Photo: supplied

How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to timtheyowieman@bigpond.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday August 26, 2017 with the correct answer wins a double pass to Dendy cinemas.

CONTACT TIM: Email: timtheyowieman@bigpond.com or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. You can see a selection of past columns online.

Canberra’s intrepid adventurer, mystery investigator, and cryptonaturalist. Nobody knows the Canberra region like Tim the Yowie Man.