The decision to republish, last year, Sara Dowse’s pioneering 1983 novel, West Block, was prescient. Think about this. In last weekend’s The Saturday Paper (14 August 2021), journalist Karen Middleton wrote about an issue involving the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. In her article, she shares some comments made about this Department by law professor Anne Twomey. Twomey, Middleton writes, called
the department “disorganised, shambolic and disrespectful of the legal process”.
“In days gone by, the department was full of extremely competent people – the traditional mandarins,” she says. “Look what’s coming out of it now.”
Now, this is the Department Sara Dowse worked in during the 1970s. It was housed in a wonderful old Canberra building called West Block, and it’s this building, and Dowse’s work there, which inspired her eponymous novel. I read it back in the 1980s, and loved it, but have always wanted to read it again. How would it stack up – as a novel, and as a document about Canberra and the public service – decades later? Having now reread it, I think it stacks up very well, and clearly so did For Pity Sake Publishing.
This new edition is prefaced by an Author’s Note, in which Dowse provides a background to the novel, including her career trajectory which inspired it. Dowse headed up the Whitlam government’s new Women’s Affairs Section, from 1974 to 1977. Dowse resigned partly in protest at the section’s removal from the Department by the Fraser Government, but partly also because what she really wanted to do was write.
But, what to write about? She was American-born, living in Australia at a time when Australian women’s writing was flowering – with Australian stories. Although she’d been in Australia since 1958, it was her experience working in West Block, that gave her such a story:
The building itself galvanised me. The minute I walked into it, I wanted to write its story, but now that I was in a position to, I was up against the prejudice against Canberra, most particularly, Canberra’s public service.
As a Canberran and a public servant myself – albeit a librarian/archivist rather than a bureaucrat – I know whereof she speaks.
‘Nuff said, so I’ll return to my opening description of the novel as “pioneering”. Some of you may have wondered about that call. First, few novels had been set, to then anyhow, in Canberra. There’d been some, like M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Plaque with laurel, but not many. That has changed, since, due partly in fact to Canberra’s group of Seven Writers, of which Dowse was a member. Second, not many novels had been written about the workings of the public service, particularly Australia’s. And finally, Dowse’s writing, particularly the structure she used for her novel, was innovative. Dowse said in the book’s zoom launch I attended last year, that one of her inspirations was John Dos Passos, and how he can tell a big story through overlapping individual stories.
All this makes West Block an excellent and meaningful read, not just for Canberrans, but for Australians and readers of thoughtful novels anywhere.
Servants of a nation (Harland)
With that long preamble, let’s now get to the book. Set in 1977, it tells the intersecting stories of five public servants: conservative, “sober-faced” bureaucrat George Harland; passionate, progressive Henry Beeker; socially conscious, dedicated but lonely Catherine Duffy; young, up and coming economist Jonathan Roe; and the femocrat, Women’s Equality Branch head, Cassie Armstrong, whose story bookends the novel, making her its main and unifying character. While each character’s story occupies a separate chapter, giving each centre stage in turn, they do occasionally appear in each other’s stories, and they all work in West Block to Departmental head, Deasey.
Through these characters we see the workings of government, and here, as a plus, we also gain insight into the issues of the time which, besides women’s affairs, included Australia’s uranium policy and Vietnam. Dowse uses these big issues to show what happens behind the scenes – trips overseas to negotiate with other governments, the IDCs (interdepartmental committees) and argy-bargying between departments as public servants try to find compromise between their various political masters, relationships between politicians and bureaucrats. Underpinning these is the daily life of public servants as they navigate the ethics of public service and their career ambitions alongside their jobs. We see tensions between different perspectives and approaches – the sober conservatives like Harland versus the crusading progressives like Beeker – of service. Dowse gives both their due.
This sounds dry, but it’s not because Dowse infuses her story with humanity. Her characters are not just public servants, but human beings with lives, and feelings. At the launch I attended, interviewer Seminara said she loved the characters for their commitment to public interest and because they are “admirable as characters, flawed as people.” Harland struggles to understand his daughter who has left her husband and children; Catherine confronts the ethics of personal relationships that intrude into work life; and Jonathan reacts poorly to his girlfriend’s unplanned pregnancy, for example.
Cassie, the main character, is not Dowse but is clearly inspired by her. The angst is palpable as she and her staff struggle to get their voices heard and women’s agenda on the table. There is a telling scene with Deasey that says it all. She presents him with her Branch’s thorough report into women’s needs cross-government. He’s not impressed:
‘Seriously now. We’ve had enough of your fingers poking in every pie. Causes no end of trouble. I can’t allow it, do you hear? It’s no way to run a department. So, be a reasonable girl. Pick out one, two, maybe three things to concentrate on.’ He stopped for breath. ‘Discrimination legislation, for instance.
“Girl” eh! Would he have said to Harland, “be a sensible boy”? I reckon not.
There are two more crucial characters in this novel, Canberra and West Block. They breathe life into and enrich the read immensely, but this is getting long, so watch for a Delicious Descriptions in a couple of days
While West Block’s style and structure is not as unusual as it was in the 1980s, it will likely still challenge those who like straightforward chronological narratives with deeply interacting characters. For me, though, there is a overarching narrative arc concerning Cassie’s devastated realisation that she is not going to effect the change for women she’d envisaged – and I enjoyed every beautifully-delineated character.
Ultimately, West Block pays tribute to the public servants who understand that their role is to be “servants of a nation” not of their political masters. This is the role of the public service, no matter how much its political masters would like to make it otherwise. Unfortunately, this fundamental principle has been increasingly tarnished over recent decades, which makes re-publication of this novel, now, all the more relevant and, dare I say, necessary.
Book designer: Barbie Robinson
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020 (New Edition, Orig. ed. 1983)
Review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing and the author