Tag Archives: protest

West Block

Sara Dowse. West Block: The Hidden world of Canberra’s mandarins. Penguin, 1983. ISBN: 0140067310

Why do people choose the careers they pursue? Why do people become doctors or teachers or shop assistants or bank tellers or HR managers or mechanics or truck drivers or physicists?

I can think of lots of plausible answers to this question. Money, skill, enjoyment, fulfilment, the job was available, advancement opportunities, it fits with my lifestyle, it’s what my father did, the careers adviser suggested it, that was the course I had the exam marks to get into, I have a passion for this work, it just kind of happened while I wasn’t paying attention.

I became an archivist quite by accident. My particular response to the ‘why this job?’ question is a series of answers that moves from ‘the job was available’ through ‘actually, I seem to be ok at this’ to end up with ‘I have a passion for this work’. As it happens, I am an archivist who is also a public servant—and that is also a part of the role that I feel passionate about—but I could equally have ended up in the private or community sector and feel fulfilled by the work I do.

Most of Sara Dowse’s public servants in West Block seem to be in their jobs because they are passionate about causes. Perhaps they pursued public service to advance those causes. Perhaps they pursue causes because they see opportunities to do so from within the service. However they may have arrived where they are, each of them gives us a glimpse of how life and work intersect. For some they are inseparable. For some they seem to be worlds apart.

I could go on analysing this myself, but I couldn’t explain it better than Dowse has herself in Meanjin:

Most Canberra fiction writers have been keen to make the point that the people they write about are people like any other, with loves, hates, disappointments and all the rest. They are eager to show that Canberra is just like any other Australian city and Canberrans are no more affected by the city’s major industry than other Australians are. Whereas my project, so to speak, had been the very opposite. I wanted to celebrate that industry, to show that while it could be frustrating and demanding and too often seemingly pointless, it was also important, its participants at times heroic, even—dare I say it ?—noble.

In earlier reviews I’ve been defensive when writers have disparaged the public service. Dowse’s handling of the working lives of feminist Cassie, refugee advocate Catherine, careerist and soon-to-be-father Jonathon, old school machine man George, and nascent environmentalist Henry manages to expose the failings without caricature or generalisation. The flaws have a context, and while we may rail against the system, Dowse gives us some insights into how it might have come to be as it is. Perhaps this is because Dowse is not a journalist or a judge, but has lived the public service herself and understood its possibilities and its limitations. Henry Beeker says “I’m a public servant, Cassie, not an evangelist.” But Cassie corrects him. Calls him a crusader.

I like that Dowse has taken pains to show Canberra as rounded, whole. We see all of the seasons, not just the clichéd cold. George Harland walks to work at West Block from his home in Forrest—about a 30 minute walk according to Google, but perhaps shorter in 1977 when you could have cut over the top of capital hill without Parliament House in the way:

The air filled with summer odours: massing clouds, wet grass and the sharp smell of the cedars, baking asphalt and the faint fiery scent of the gums. His ears were crowded with the song of cicadas. Everywhere there were birds, and sprinklers whirring.

Later, Catherine sees “the trees in their prime”, the “russet leaves” and the “white and gold” light of a Canberra autumn from West Block’s windows. Later still Jonathon watches frost form on the windscreen of his car in the night air. The seasons turn, not unlike George Harland’s vision of government as “an intricate engine turning the wheels of a country. Where it was going was beside the point.”

The action moves around the various points of power in Canberra. Of course, the now Old Parliament House, the Press Club, imagined meetings in the Lodge, remembered sites of protest for the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, against the Springboks tour. There are other more subtle sites of power too. Like, the Yacht Club, where networks and alliances form and dissolve. Importantly, for me anyway, the Archives, where Cassie:

spent afternoons in a reading room beside a lake, piecing together a story. How it came to be that a building in a city in a nation stopped growing. As if there was only enough sap to get it so far, far enough to waken hopes and dash them. As if all a shoot can expect is a limited, fitful growth when planted in hostile soil.

Canberra’s soil is not sufficiently prepared for Cassie’s ambitions for women and for her branch. It is more accepting of Jonathon’s accommodation of career and family, and of and Catherine’s selfless, selfish act on behalf of Vietnamese refugees. The cycle of seasons, like governments, continues inevitably. West Block may be in elegant decay in Cassie’s time, but today it is recognised as a site of pioneering government, and its sister building, East Block, is now home to the National Archives.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

The Apricot Colonel

Marion Halligan. The Apricot Colonel. Allen & Unwin 2006. ISBN 9781741147667.

Because I love my Kindle, I’m starting with books that Amazon will sell me. I am well aware that this is a short-term arrangement. Marion Halligan is one of the few authors that I’ve so far identified who has (a) set more than one book in Canberra and (b) more than one of those books available for Kindle. On the basis that I expect to return to Marion a few times throughout the year, I thought I’d start with The Apricot Colonel.

What a lovely place to start.

Despite my dinner at Caphs assertions, The Apricot Colonel has no scene at Caphs. It is the exception that proves the rule. It does, though, reference another of the key sites for Canberra literature (as my early reading has uncovered). All cool people in Canberra-set books shop at Paperchain.

Instead of Caphs, Cassandra gets her caffeine fix at Tilley’s. In my alternate life I am young and cosmopolitan and have a job in the arts (like an editor, maybe? Hadn’t really thought of that) and I live walking distance from Tilley’s, where I can be certain that one of my community of young and cosmopolitan friends will be any time I feel like walking in. Cassandra, it turns out, is living my alternate life.

When I got back from the coast I went down to Tilley’s. My local, I think of it. I often wander down there instead of brewing my own coffee. Or opening my own bottle. …it was pleasant enough, sitting on the pavement underneath the umbrellas. You can usually count on finding someone you know.

Perhaps this happens anywhere you’ve lived long enough. I’m not someone who has a vast circle of friends, but I can no longer leave my house without running into someone I know. Small-town syndrome? Tight-knit community? Old age? Cassandra opines that “There are times when Canberra seems like a village.”

The action in The Apricot Colonel takes place in 2003, in the aftermath of the bushfires. The drama of the fires is not part of Cassandra’s story, but its effects are there like a malevolent presence. Smoke lingers over the city, and displaced dogs…

…are finding the sounds to go with it, crying, calling… Refugees, I suppose, come here because where they live was burnt, and what might they have seen, many of their companions perished in the fires.

The other malevolence in the background is the build-up to Howard’s decision to join the US invasion of Iraq, which of course will create other refugees, also here because where they live was burnt.

The 2003 Canberra bushfires were a domestic event made national—even global—by their scale. For a short time at least, the rest of Australia heard the word Canberra as meaning something other than the seat of government. It is the site of people’s homes, and 500 of them had burned. I remember at the time the Hilltop Hoods had released their single Burn Down the Parliament, and felt moved to explain that the timing was coincidental that they had never wished these terrible events on Canberrans. As if by saying ‘Parliament’ you must obviously mean all of Canberra, because what else could there be?

And the national is domestic life when Cassandra attends a march against the invasion, and feels uplifted by the common purpose made manifest around her. In Canberra a moment can have national resonances, although Cassandra is wryly realistic about the extent of that influence:

A split second, my short sharp words, and such mobs of people had heard them and seen me. I imagined the prime minister thinking, by golly, she’s right. Yes.

What I think endears The Apricot Colonel to me is its fondly mundane depiction of Canberra, and I guess its closeness to how I feel. The familiar references to Tilley’s “…at the counter waiting as you do even when the place seems empty”. The passing references to postings (diplomatic, not internet). Depredations of possums on the fruit trees and foxes on the backyard chooks. Editing work on government annual reports. Government is part of Cassandra’s Canberra, but it’s not all of it.


Winner 2004: ACT Book of the Year Award.

Commended 2004: Fellowship of Australian Writer’s Christina Stead Award for Fiction.

Shortlisted: Best Book-South Pacific and South East Asia section of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2004

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Women Writers