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.