Sara Dowse, West Block (#BookReview)

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.

Challenge logo

Sara Dowse
West Block
Book designer: Barbie Robinson
For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020 (New Edition, Orig. ed. 1983)
348pp.
ISBN: 9780648565789

Review copy courtesy For Pity Sake Publishing and the author

23 thoughts on “Sara Dowse, West Block (#BookReview)

  1. I like the description of today’s Department, and agree entirely. Trickle-down, of course: Morrison thinks he’s a god, and his lackeys support this appalling situation. Comes from his days in advertising, of course, when he swanned around being king shit.
    Book sounds good, she said, struggling down off her hobby-horse ..

  2. What’s happened to the public service is that it’s fallen prey to the obsession with debt and deficit. Every election, one party would rail against the ‘overpaid fat cats’ and in government would promptly sack them, destroying the knowledge base, sabotaging expertise and ruining the independence of the public service. They would then hire consultants who ended up costing more than the sacked public servants.
    So the other side would promise to sack the overpaid unaccountable consultants…
    The fact is that modern government needs a highly skilled, stable, professional, independent public service and the endless narrative about saving money by tinkering with it has caused nothing but trouble.
    One of my jobs before I became a teacher was in the public service, in the State Film Centre. We were underfunded and understaffed because the budget hadn’t been increased since the centre was first set up in 1946. Coming from previous clerical work in the private sector, I couldn’t believe the workload! But I stayed there for twelve months because I loved it, much more satisfying than office-work in menswear…

    • I reckon, Lisa – that it was much more satisfying than office-work in menswear, I mean! But you have hit the nail on the head. In her Author’s Note Sara talks about the economic rationalism that started to hit just as she was leaving the service. It has been a critical part of the deterioration in the service – and what you say is part of that. This idea that outsourcing is cheaper is so wrong in so many ways, but one of them is as you say the loss of – or not building up of – knowledge and skills within the service.

      The privatisation of what are essential services is related to this too.

      I took early retirement for a few reasons but one of them was becoming tired with all this – including the ridiculous business of having to value our collection every year for depreciation! Valuing archival/museum/national library collections is ridiculous but the amount of time and thus cost this involved each year …

      Oh, I must stop ….

      Thanks for your comment Lisa, it just confirms the value of this book.

  3. I’m sure you’ve had this novel in one of your posts fairly recently (and I think on various occasions before that?) I say this because I’m sure it’s the reason I went and ordered one through my local bookshop (I live in Alice Springs these days). I haven’t got around to reading it yet, but I will be sure to revisit this post (and the other ones) once I have…

    • Well I did write up the launch Glen, and I may have mentioned it other times. I’m thrilled that you ordered a copy. Do let me know what you think when you’ve read it.

      You live in Alice Springs now? How wonderful. I’ve visited there three times and hope to visit there again. I love being in Central Australia.

  4. How can I thank you, WG, for your insightful and appreciate thoughts on West Block? What a surprise too, to discover that you’d posted them.

    Few words are adequate, other than to say that I never dreamt when writing it that there would come a time when its plea for the central importance of government and the people who serve the nation in it would be so apposite again – and this nearly 40 years down the track.

    And as you point out, some of the issues its structure posed for readers then, not to mention its setting and subject matter, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow today.

    Worth living long enough, I guess.

    • Thanks Sara. I so enjoyed reading it again. Many of the issues have changed, but the book is still strong and relevant. And, anyhow, look at Afghanistan now versus the evacuation from Vietnam that your Catherine dealt with! Plus ça change! Not to mention the struggle still for women’s issues and lives to be part of whole of government thinking. I’m glad this book has a second life for its subject matter and literary quality.

  5. I hope Ms Dowse has stopped reading. I’ve had West Block on my shelves for years. I really must get round to it in time for AWW Gen 4 Week. I greatly admired Dos Passos’ USA when I read it but that was a long time ago, so there’s an extra reason to read it.

    Let me say, although cost is used an excuse for defunding the public service the real reason was because the Libs in particular hated having to deal with the unions. Now of course both parties are entirely dependent on donations and must keep delivering up profits to the consulting firms and merchant banks to keep the donations (and post-politics jobs) flowing.

    • I thought of you as I read this Bill, wondering if you’d read it. I’d love to hear your thoughts as I think the subject matter will interest you, and there’s such a variety of characters. While I think you have a point about u ions I think it’s also more complex and that as Sara Zdowse says, the whole movement to economic rationalism was a significant issues. The union issue could perhaps be seen as both part of and alongside this economic policy. BTW we had a strong union in my workplace through the 90s and later, but we may have been a bit unusual… We had a fairly unusual labour/staffing situation that was behind this. Too long a story to go into now but we had decent management, led by an excellent people-oriented Director, that worked pretty well with the union.

      • I don’t exactly agree with “bookend” (re Cassie). You would need the memory of an elephant to remember to connect the first four pages with Cassie’s, final, chapter. I do remember though you saying years ago that at the end of a book you go back and re-read the start, and it’s only in that context that those first four pages make any sense.

        • Far enough, Bill, you are light that I do that frequently. However, when a book is structured like this it does behove readers to pay careful attention. I’m pretty sure I remembered Cassie, though, as I read. That said, I have noticed my reading memory is not as sharp as it used to be!

  6. The comparison to John Dos Passos throws me a bit because I read both the USA trilogy and Manhattan Transfer in grad school and didn’t get into either one. I suppose as I went into those books I didn’t realize they were character driven, so I kept searching for a plot. On the other hand, I’m currently reading The Bonfires of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe with my mom, and it was also published in the 1980s. It has several main characters who, so far, are not overlapping but have connections and will obviously all be thrown in the same room soon. There are social justice advocates in Harlem, a court-provided lawyer for the poor, a Wall Street wonder boy, a drunken newspaper man from England, etc. I’m wondering if you would like it, Sue!

    • Thanks for this comment Melanie … I haven’t read Dos Passos, though besides Sara I have a friend who is very keen on him. I feel I should give him a try. I am probably less focused on plot than you are, so that issue is probably not likely to turn me off. I am a bit concerned about length though! These days I find it hard to contemplate long books given there are so many shorter books I am also very keen to read.

      As for The bonfire of the vanities, you wonder well! I read it when it came out and loved it. I don’t remember the details greatly but reading it when “the masters of the universe” were still fresh in the mind, and only a few years after I’d lived in Northern Virginia, it felt very real and fresh. I remember loving the opening chapter. I was in from the start. It sounds like you are enjoying it. It’s one I could imagine reading and enjoying again.

      • I am very much enjoying it! I hate every character but feel like I “get” them, too. That whole “Masters of the Universe” section had me in giggles. I often laugh when I am not supposed to in this book. I looked up the movie version and learned it did not do well because viewers hated all the characters for being terrible people.

        • I have never forgott3n the Masters of the Universe. You know me, I think. I don’t like a book based on whether I like the characters, but the characterisation is important. I didn’t see the movie. Didn’t feel the need to, really. Is Biscuit, that’s your Mum it?, liking it?

        • Ha, yes, Biscuit is my mom. She got that name from one of her former wardens (she works in a prison as a warden’s assistant). I think it suits her! She’s short and round and a little flaky, just the way we like her.

          I agree: I don’t need to like anyone in a book. However, I will say a book like The Slap really threw me off because it was so focused on male sexual desires, which eventually made me feel really gross.

        • Love your Mum’s nickname – flaky. Haha!

          Re The slap. Yes, I suppose that was a big part but for me it was more about violence and aggression, which isn’t pleasant either, but I thought it was making some really important observations.

  7. Pingback: West Block, Sara Dowse | The Australian Legend

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