TAG Hungerford. Riverslake. Angus and Robertson, 1953.
Riverslake, arose from a deep-seated concern at injustice. It was the period of post war immigration in Australia. A friend working at one of the Canberra migrant camps had mentioned the prejudice that was rife there. Hungerford took a job as a kitchen hand at Eastlake camp, near present Narrabunda [sic] in Canberra, to see it for himself and to write about it.
“Eastlake was a jungle – a jungle,” Tom Hungerford says emphatically. “There was murder there; rape, buggery, suicide. The lot. And a terrible feeling of desperation and disillusionment among the migrants. The Australians lumped them all together as ‘BaIts’ and vented their anti-Balt feeling on them. I saw a lot of the active xenophobia of the good old Aussie labourer. I watched uncouth, beer-sodden sots lording it over educated men. It made my blood boil. That’s what Riverslake came out of.”
TAG Hungerford’s boiling blood is embodied in former teacher Bob Randolf, running away from we-don’t-quite-know-what after the war, and burying himself as a cook in the camp kitchen at Riverslake. It’s a poisonous atmosphere.
The camps like Riverslake house the workers who are building the new capital, now finally starting to hit its straps after the delays of the depression and the war. Chifley is prime minister, and the unions are feeling and testing their influence in this new world order. Bob Randolf – Randy as he prefers – likes none of it. He is suffused with an abstract love of his country, but not for many of his countrymen. In his time at Riverslake he comes increasingly to understand what the European migrants who work alongside him have lost, and what circumstances have forced them to choose to submit to the demeaning work and routine racism that is Riverslake. While Randy stands on his principles beside these men, he is in danger of failing a more intimate test of his moral courage in the form of Mrs Linda Spain.
Riverslake is an important depiction of post-war Australian political and social conditions. Indeed, a bit of googling seems to indicate that it has been an important source for the Australian National Dictionary Centre in documenting the Australian slang of the time. It’s certainly not only about Canberra. There are references to similar camps in other sites of post-war reconstruction and enterprise, such as the Snowy Scheme. Riverslake does, though, give us a fascinating glimpse of the Canberra landscape – both social and geographical – between the war and the lake.
As Hungerford revealed to Graeme Kinross Smith in 1974 for Westerly, and quoted above, Riverslake is Eastlake. In reality Eastlake was dismantled in the 1920s, although there were plenty of other workmen’s camps in the area, notably Causeway, that continued after World War 2. Given that even the locations for some of the early camps are a bit of a mystery today, something like Riverslake which to some extent brings them to life, is important.
There are two worlds in 1940s Canberra – the world of the construction camps and the world of government – although their borders are remarkably permeable. Randy and some of his friends are able to cross the boundaries to visit the house “a large, pleasant home, quite near, if not actually under the shadow of, Red Hill.” of public servant Paul Spain and his wife Linda. They regularly have Paul’s Minister Hanrahan over for drinks, while Hanrahan’s driver, referred to with casually appalling racism as Blackie, waits outside in the car.
Randy, though, is part of the workers’ camps, which means he is also privy to the world of the Causeway:
The Causeway sprawled in a welter of unpainted shacks and unpaved roads beside the railway yards. It was hidden from the highway by a belt of mushroom factories, hardly less an eyesore than the slum they hid, since they were run up to no particular plan amongst muddy lanes and smouldering rubbish tips. It was the inevitable shanty-town that springs up beside any city, however well planned, because there are always people who could not be happy outside a slum.
Paul Spain works at Parliament House, and while his story is something of a sideline, it gives context to why the Canberra of Riverslake exists at all:
The House was sitting, and to him at least, perhaps because he knew what was going on in the Members’ rooms and in the Party rooms, the corridors and the lobbies and the chambers, it was enveloped in an air, a sound of something doing. It was the heart awakened of this sprawling city that existed for no other reason than to feed to its pumping valves the departmental plasma that kept armies of girls pounding at their typewriters, kept the secretaries whispering importantly in corridors, kept the cleaners polishing and dusting in King’s Hall under the benign gilt smile of George V, and kept the Members dancing attendance in the strident summons of the Division bells.
Separate again from those two worlds is the world of the immigrants. With Randy’s growing sympathy for his European workmates – referred to uniformly, regardless of nationality, as “bloody Balts” by most Australians – he is part of that world too. Alongside their Australian workmates they and their families contemplate single rented rooms at the shops in Kingston if you are a Balt, or perhaps half a house in Narrabundah for a newly married Australian. Work in service at the Hotel Acton and Gorman House. The rounds of the hotels – Civic, Kingston, Acton – where some of the cooks spend their hours between the lunch and dinner shifts. All of it separated only by some lucerne paddocks waiting to become a lake, with Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain looming over it all.
It’s a grim world, although Randy’s friend Murdoch is able to see the good in it, remarking that “’You even get to like it after… It even looks, well, pretty, sometimes. I think so.’” It is also Murdoch who has the explanation of why Canberra is so inhospitable to Novikowski and the other ‘Balts’:
Canberra’s a tough place, even for Australians, if they’re new to it. Everybody’s here for what he can get out of it without working more than he can help. They don’t care for the place, they don’t put anything back for what they take out.
Soulless. I can see here the origin of the cliché about Canberra. The people who continue to call Canberra soulless today are perhaps the ones who continue to be here for what they can get, without putting anything back. For those who do have a connection with Canberra, we do invest something of ourselves, and in return we perhaps reap the rewards of community and belonging. It’s something that evolves, that can’t be manufactured. Sixty-odd years on, I believe it is now a place where, should you wish to belong, you can be welcomed and included and valued for your own identity, with much less of the careless labelling and cruel suspicion that Hungerford saw in Riverslake.