Why does the federal capital city have so few, if any, ghosts?
What can our unhappily spectre-bereft city do to create habitats that enable them to thrive and to haunt here?
In a fine new online essay, The Haunted City, University of Oxford Rhodes Scholar Azania Imtiaz Khatri Patel discusses why ghosts and cities need one another and why they so often occur together.
"Most metropolises are overrun with ghosts;" she diagnoses, "from New York to London, Mumbai to Shanghai, a simple Google search throws up an encyclopaedia's worth of results about urban legends based on things that go bump in the dark."
Her analysis got me thinking yet again about Canberra's eerie ghostlessness and wondering why her (highly readable) explanation of why ghosts and cities commonly go together doesn't seem to apply to Australia's capital city.
In my almost 50 years of living in Canberra and in spite of being always spectre-receptive and hoping to see them they have never materialised for me.
Ms Patel's definition of what ghosts are is broad, inclusive, poetical and scholarly.
"When I speak of ghosts, I don't just mean the horror-story variety," she explains.
"Our lives in cities are shaped by invisible hands, body-less voices and an eerie automation of infrastructure. As the French Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau wrote, cities are in a constant state of decay and transformation, demolition and rebuilding, and it is this repeated change that makes cities fertile grounds for hauntings."
"In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980), he wrote that haunted places are the only places people can live in, as the human psyche is too entwined with memory and familiarity to let go of things past. The mind, he says, comes up with creative forms of resistance to cope with the pressures of modern life, and ghosts are one of them."
One of Patel's claims is that cities ghost stories are often "tales of the definitely abandoned, but not quite forgotten".
So for example she notices how ghost-rich New York and Paris each have about a dozen abandoned, but, crucially, not demolished and removed subway stations.
She notes with approval that "it is invariable," in cities that embrace these sorts of abandonments "that there will be stations that trains do not stop at, places of disuse that become the home of ghosts and shifting phantoms."
I have no room here to do Ms Patel's 3500 word meditation proper justice but I latch on to her idea of "places of disuse" being essential habitats for ghosts.
Canberra's immaculate, short-back-and-sides ruinlessness ... is one of several things about the city that sometimes make it seem unworthy of the label city
I have written many pieces despairing at this city's sterile tidiness and orderliness, pieces pleading for the city to be allowed to please, please have some ruins.
Ruins humanise and give a moving complexity to the places where they stand and decay. They are essential to Ms Patel's quoted scholar's belief that "haunted places are the only places people can live in, as the human psyche is too entwined with memory and familiarity to let go of things past".
But in Canberra, perhaps because of governments' sense that a federal capital city should be a spick-and-span, dusted and polished place, unsightly abandoned places are demolished and their sites occupied with something new and shiny in the twinkling of an eye.
This deprives ghosts of the habitats essential to them, as well as making the city less liveable for the living citizens who have human psyches too entwined with memory and familiarity to want to let go of things past. But in Canberra, alas, the built "things past" and "places of disuse" our psyches crave are speedily repurposed and refurbished or more usually whisked away and replaced with smart things nothing like the things that used to stand there.
Canberra's immaculate, short-back-and-sides ruinlessness is a great shame and is one of several things about the city that sometimes make it seem unworthy of the label city. Real cities have ruins.
A Warden ACT government, swept to power on a friends-of-phantasm ticket, will suspend all inessential demolitions of the abandoned and disused and will protect their processes of ruination.
Again and again in suburbia we see our streets temporarily enhanced, lent great character by an abandoned home awaiting imminent demolition and replacement with a "quality dwelling". As I write this there is one, its roof tiles attractively decorated with moss and lichen, its front lawn a dramatically bedraggled swathe of tundra, in my own street. It gives my street the only character it has. Sounds from within the house raise hopes that there may already by poltergeists there, squatting.
It will be friends-of-Phantasm policy that every street will be blessed with one of these ruins-in-progress, its demolition forbidden, in the hope that ghosts will move into it.
There have been two especially tragic lost ghost-lodging opportunities in Canberra.
They were Canberra Hospital between its abandonment and implosion/removal and Parliament House (now Old Parliament House) between its 1988 abandonment for the stately pleasure dome on the hill and glittering refurbishment as a museum. Both had such promise as world-class ruins.
I knew and visited them both in their eerie, increasingly cobwebbed abandonment. I had worked in the old and busy parliament and knew it well and on my secret visits to it in its dark, deathly-quiet, dust-accumulating, abandoned phase noticed with delight its poignant decay. The bats were coming. It was becoming excitingly spectre-ready.
If only the old parliament had been left alone to go the way of all disused bricks and mortar (and sumptuous leather furnishings and polished woodwork) by now it would surely be "overrun" (Ms Patel's memorable word) with a teeming tenancy of ghosts.
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Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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