Tag Archives: Refugees


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.



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Felicity Volk. Lightning. Picador, 2013. ISBN: 9781743289099.

I loved Lightning. Those three of you who have been following this blog closely will have realised that I am enchanted by thoughtful, dreaming, poetic prose, and stories that explore inner selves as much as outer worlds. My favourites so far have been books like Jan Borrie’s Verge, Alex Miller’s The Sitters, Dorothy Johnson’s The House at Number 10, and Joanne Horniman’s About a Girl. They all have a lilting, floating feel to them, and Lightning is also there with them. Wistful and at times whimsical, Lightning is about grief and the need to belong. To belong to others, to belong to places, and to belong to traditions and histories.

Persia’s friend Salome describes her as a “letter-goer”. As opposed to a “holder-onner”:

‘You know, if you stayed in one place long enough to have the phone put on, you wouldn’t have to run your friendships on loose change.’ She had intended it affectionately.

And Persia does find it hard to put down roots of her own, despite her careful nurturing of the gardens, and especially the daphne, she plants at each place she comes briefly to rest. It’s natural, then, that Persia would plan a home birth, with no one beyond a midwife beside her. Natural also, that this coming child would be the one she expects will ground her, and will belong to her entirely. “With you I’ll be a holder-onner”, Persia whispers.

When Persia goes into labour on 18 January 2003, Canberra is in the midst of its greatest crisis, and Persia must manage alone.

Angry winds blew ash across the city; the air was sooty and hot. I am not going to give birth on such a day, Persia thought as she looked through her bedroom window to where the Brindabella Range sulked under a wilting sky.

In the terrible aftermath, grief-stricken and still alone, she starts to follow a vague plan to go to her child’s father, perhaps to share her grief with him. Along the way she meets Ahmed, a refugee who has griefs and secrets of his own. Together they travel through a landscape that is not theirs, but through it find ways to tell eachother stories that both heal and reveal. Somewhere along the way Persia forms a new plan, to travel to the place where she does have roots – Hermannsburg and the home of her Afghan cameleer ancestor.

Lake George is an early marker on Persia’s route:

an expanse of landscape she found stirring, first for its physical beauty and later… its metaphysical. The steep escarpment of scraggy snow gums opposite the lake, along which the highway stretched, became a topographical milestone in Persia’s journeying…

When Persia first arrives in Canberra, it is a city of strangers, and she has little intention of changing that. “Instead of acquiring a social circle, Persia joined the local photographic society”. So, when she finds herself adrift in Grafton, Persia realises that there is nothing for her in Canberra:

Home. Disfigured by grief it was a foreign, unwelcoming destination. Loss makes you look at a place differently, thought Persia. The architecture of it resembled an Escher print. All staircases going rightly in the wrong directions, mostly to basements beneath idyllic parks…

Ahmed’s loss is older, and more familiar to him. He understands more clearly where Persia is heading, perhaps, than Persia does:

He’d thought of Ruth and Naomi… Old Testament Ruth and Naomi. The Moabite and the Israelite. The widowed daughter-in-law leaving her own tribe behind to accompany the widowed mother-in-law back to her land. How home is a person, not bricks and mortar; not tribe, nor custom, nor bloodline, but a person. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God my God



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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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Turtle Beach

Blanche D’Alpuget. Turtle Beach. Allen & Unwin House of Books, 2012. ISBN 9781742699189. First published 1981.

I have found so far in this project that by the time I’m half-way through a book I’ve identified a theme that I want to follow through to the end, work with and write about. Of course, the refugee ‘problem’ (whatever you think that might mean) in Turtle Beach is the ‘unignorable’ theme that resonates for me. How is it that we are having exactly the same conversations all these years later?

I’ve resisted following this line, feeling ill-equipped to compare and contrast the post-Vietnam war Malaysia of the 1970s and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan/Sri Lankan wars Malaysia of the 2010s. It is though, as I say, unignorable. What occurred to me, almost at the very end of D’Alpuget’s novel, is that Turtle Beach is about deciding what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared to lose. What power do we have, and what will we choose to use if for?

Canberra is the jumping-off point, the familiar anchor before we head to the unfamiliar world of Malaysia and its refugee camps. It is the logical place to begin the story, where we can expect political journalists, aspiring politicians, diplomats and other public servants to intersect.

All of Turtle Beach’s characters have battles to face. Not all of them are equal to the fight, and each must choose their own weapons. The first Lady Hobday concedes the field and retreats to her Red Hill home, but the second will use every tool within reach to fight for her family. Poor, sick Ralph the immigration official chooses to fight without really meaning to pay the consequences that result. Kanaan avoids conflict by invoking a fatalistic Hindu philosophy, believing that what will be will be. In the background, the refugees take any avenue they can to overcome their collective and individual struggles.

Judith Wilkes, Canberra political journalist, is in Malaysia to pursue the refugee ‘problem’ back to its source, or close enough. She, like her hostess, the second Lady Hobday, Minou, will make use of any lead and any contact to pursue what she is after. Whether she is chasing the story for its own sake, for her career, or for that of her about-to-be preselected husband isn’t always clear. It seems at moments that she will put more into this than into her unravelling marriage.

Canberra is a place to get things done, to make a difference, where you can access the tools that win wars. Politics is about power, and the power to pursue the things we believe are right. When Judith learns that her husband is on his way into the federal parliament, she has a moment of excitement about the possibilities:

He laughed modestly. ‘Come 1983 I’ll be Minister for … oh, I could take Immigration…’

‘No!’ Suddenly she was not in an Asian hotel room with an arrow on its ceiling pointing to Mecca, but back there in the thick of it. Jesus! She could write the policy herself. ‘No! Take Women’s Affairs! And Aborigines! Think how much good you could do for…’

In Turtle Beach D’Alpuget frequently returns to a theme of describing the colours and qualities of light —the soft greenish light of a garden, “grey refracted light” of dawn in Minou’s childhood Vietnam, the “tinselly light” of a drunken night on the town. In Canberra, that theme plays into the colours of the encircling mountains as the light changes:

The summer grasses had been bleached to straw, the purple mountains that ring the city had seemed to move closer in the harsh light

Sometimes the Brindabellas are “detached, spiky and black”, sometimes a soft lilac. I want to venture into a metaphor of the mountains around Canberra as a barrier—Judith thinks of them as a barricade—to seeing, or wanting to see, the plight of the refugees. Arriving in Malaysia, drowning off its beaches, being driven back from its shoreline by its frightened, angry villagers, living in its stinking, squalid island camps that are meant to represent refuge. I can’t help wondering how many of D’Alpuget’s largely faceless refugee families could still be waiting today in that so-called queue we keep hearing about. The one that people who arrive here by boat were supposed to be sent to the back of.

While musing on the metaphor of mountains, I came across TheBlackTwig, who introduces an account of climbing Mount Ainslie with these words:

I live in a city where the sunset bleeds deep red and yet it is beautiful…

I live in Canberra where mountains block us from the rest of the country and yet it is enlightening.

That’s it. Canberra is enlightening. Enlightened. Relatively speaking. And yet we are in many senses still cut off from the rest of the country. As I said in my review of The Tazyrik Year, to understand Canberra is not necessarily to understand the rest of Australia. We do, though, participate with much of the rest of this country in perpetuating myths and stereotypes about ‘boat people’. As Judith’s husband observes “We’re living in mean-spirited times”.


Winner, Fiction Category, 1981: Age Book of the Year

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