Australian poet Judith Wright at her Hermes 3000 typewriter
It's more than 10 years now since the Australian Capital Territory's Place Names Committee announced that among the new suburbs to be built in the Molonglo Valley outside Canberra would be planned adjoining developments called Wright, after the Nobel Prize-nominated Australian poet Judith Wright, and Coombs, after "Nugget" Combs, an economist who had been Director-General of Post-War Reconstruction, Chancellor of the Australian National University and the first Governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. All well and good, given this pair had been two of Australia's most well-known and well-loved public figures. But there was far more to the Place Names Committee's decision than met the eye. Indeed, it provided an extremely rare glimpse of bureaucratic romanticism. Someone on the committee was "in the know".
Wright had passed away in Canberra, aged 85, on June 25, 2000, 7½ years before the suburb naming honour was bestowed upon her, on January 2, 2008. Coombs had died and been given a state funeral almost 2½ years earlier, on October 29, 1997. But it wasn't just because they were both long out of the local limelight that the significance and poignancy of this naming decision was lost on almost all Canberrans. Even today, many people - even among those now living in the growing suburbs of Wright and Combs - would be unaware that for a quarter of a century, Wright and Coombs were secret lovers. Yet, as Wright once wrote to a friend in England, confessing to the affair without naming names, "Love is love, no matter what the problems, and always joyful even in the pain."
Coombs and Wright picnic in the bush.
In revealing the affair in her article "In the Garden" in the The Monthly in June 2009, Fiona Capp pointed out that although Wright had helped care for Coombs in the two years before his death, following a series of strokes, she was unable to attend Coombs's funeral because their relationship had never been made public. "Coombs and his wife, Mary, were separated, but his loyalty to Mary and to his children meant that he never contemplated a divorce. Wright was even more determined to keep the affair a secret. She'd been in a similar position with her late husband, the philosopher Jack McKinney, when they first met and she still carried guilt about the pain she felt she'd caused his family. One of the most remarkable things about this relationship [between Wright and Coombs] is the silence that has continued to surround it ... It is a measure of the respect in which they are held that their desire for privacy, even after death, has been observed."
Judith Arundell Wright was born in Armidale, New South Wales, on May 31,1915, and spent most of her formative years in Brisbane and Sydney. She attended New England Girls' School and studied Philosophy, English, Psychology and History at the University of Sydney. For the last three decades of her life, she lived near the New South Wales town of Braidwood, so she could be closer to Coombs, who was based in Canberra. She spent her last few years living in a small bedsit in Canberra. Herbert Cole Coombs was born in Kalamunda, Western Australia, on February 24, 1906.
A page from one of Judith Wright's typescripts, seen in the National Library
of Australia's 50th anniversary exhibition.
Wright was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1967, coming up against a daunting field of 69 other contenders, including W.H. Auden, Samuel Beckett, Saul Bellow, Lawrence Durrell, E.M. Forster, Robert Graves, Graham Greene, Katherine Anne Porter, Ezra Pound, Georges Simenon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert Penn Warren, Thornton Wilder and Edmund Wilson. Only eight on the formidable nomination list ever won the prize, and with Wright, those who failed to win included Auden, Durrell, Forster, Graves, Greene, Porter, Pound, Simenon, Tolkien, Warren, Wilder and Wilson. (See the full list below, as well as a list of all winners from 1967-2017).
Wright also has a street named in her honour, in the suburb of Franklin, which is named for the great Australian writer Miles Franklin (typewriter left). Indeed, Canberra has a habit of saluting writers andjournalists with the names of its suburbs and streets. The streets of McKellar are named for journalists, including Charles Bean (typewriter above right), Kenneth Slessor (typing left), Hugh Buggy, the cricket writer who used a Remington portable to coin the phrase "Bodyline", and Sir Frederick Lloyd Dumas. The streets in Garran are named after Australian writers, and the suburb of Richardson is named for Henry Handel Richardson (real name Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson, typewriter below right).
The suburb of Fraser is named after the political correspondent and later politician James Reay Fraser, who used an early Remington portable. The suburb called Taylor is named after magazine publisher and journalist Florence Taylor. I live in Hughes, which is named for former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who used a Corona 3 folding portable (and banned the import version of the Erika folding, the Bijou). Lawson is named for the great writer Henry Lawson and Gordon for the poet Adam Gordon Lindsay.
Australian Electoral Commission has just announced that a proposed new Federal electorate for the ACT will be named in honour of war correspondent and official war historian Charles Bean, seen below (the electorate will cover the Molonglo Valley district, including Wright and Coombs).
Carlos Drummond de Andrade
Friedrich Georg Jünger
Katherine Anne Porter
Miguel Ángel Asturias
Robert Penn Warren
Gabriel García Márquez
Isaac Bashevis Singer
Mario Vargas Llosa