Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on West Block

In my recent post on Sara Dowse’s West Block, I ran out of time to share some quotes and thoughts on her depiction of Canberra and the heritage building, West Block, in which the novel is set. I am remedying that now.

But, I’ll start by saying that, like most readers, I love reading because it takes me to other places, lives and cultures. Not only is this stimulating, but it helps me understand others more – and that can only be good. However, there is also something special about reading about one’s own place and life. Sometimes it reinforces our own impressions, sometimes it just enables us to sit back and remember, and sometimes it encourages us to look at our things from a different angle or perspective. Sara Dowse’s West Block, which is set in the city in which I’ve lived the majority of my adult life, does all of these for me.

When I say I’m going to remedy that now, I mean I’m going to partly remedy that now because I’ve decided – for my benefit if for no-one else’s – to make two posts, one on West Block and one on Canberra.

West Block

So, West Block – which features on both the original Penguin cover and the new For Pity Sake one. You can find a succinct history of the building on Architect and Heritage Consultant practice Lovell Chen’s site. West Block is part of what was the Parliament House Secretariat group of buildings designed in 1925 by the Chief Architect of the Commonwealth Department of Works and Railways, John Smith Murdoch. The central building was Provisional Parliament House (now Old Parliament House, since the completion of our current Parliament House in 1988). East Block was the other building. The architectural style was, says Lovell Chen, “Stripped Classical”, though changes, including an additional wing, were made to West Block over the next couple of decades. 

As I wrote in my post, West Block housed the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and Dowse describes the regular trips made by its inhabitants through some of the parliamentary rose gardens to Parliament House. Another point made by Dowse is that across the road from West Block were – and still are – the British and New Zealand High Commissions.

However, by the late 1970s when the novel is set, the building was 50 years old, and it was showing. Not only was Cassie’s Women’s Equality Branch (WEB) to be moved out of the Department, but Departmental head, Deasey, had “pulled a deal” to move his Department to another nearby building, so West Block could be demolished. Cassie is “appalled”, but no-one else seems to be:

They had no sense of history, these men.

West Block was being discarded, just like the WEB! (In the event, West Block has survived, but in what form is still unknown, though a boutique hotel is, controversially, the latest. Seems anomalous in the location, to me, but …)

I enjoyed the many descriptions of the building – of the light playing on the walls, of what could be seen out of the windows – but another issue related to the characters’ offices. As in most hierarchical organisations, where you are in a building says something about your status. So …

Economist Jonathan’s boss, Kenneth Olman

had one of the best rooms in West Block. Red silk drapes. Mahogany walls. On which he hung original Australian paintings, the kind that were bound to increase their value. A Whiteley. A Williams. An Olsen. Jonathan used to gaze at them during lulls, love his eyes from on to another, congratulating Olman on his taste and good sense.

We learn here of course, about the building, and about the characters of Olman and Jonathan.

Another senior bureaucrat, Harland, also had a good room.

a large, teak-panelled room with windows facing west and south. His desk was poised between them. He liked to turn in the swivel chair and, flexing his fingers, look down on the cars below, streaming along Commonwealth Avenue.

Facing west and south aren’t ideal, of course, but he did have a view of Commonwealth Avenue and those High Commissions I mentioned. However, the aspect meant that it was cool in the morning, and in the afternoon,

was filled with shadow.

And little else.

It formed part of the executive section, the refurbished front of West Block that faced the rear of Parliament House, and hid its own rather mangy tail. Despite certain luxurious touches – panelling, furniture, carpet, drapes – his office had all the persona of a monk’s cell.

Harland, we come to know, is a sober, reliable public servant – and his corner of West Block tells us that!

Can you guess where Cassie’s office is? On the “gloomy” side of the building, albeit the wind does blow in “wattle smells from Yarralumla and the embassies”. This building, Dowse conveys, was old and had no air-conditioning. It was cold in winter, but, on the plus side, they could open windows! As for Cassie’s interior decoration?

Under Rita’s supervision, the Women’s Equality Branch had dressed Cassie’s wall, with posters left over from International Women’s Year.

These are just a few examples of how Dowse describes the building, and uses it to evoke the characters of its people and their relationships. You don’t have to know West Block – which I have never entered – to enjoy Dowse’s writing about it. It lives – we have cold and sun, we have shadows and floral scents, we have views and some old building idiosyncrasies – and it acts on its occupants.

Have you loved novels in which buildings are quintessential?

Sara Dowse, West Block (New Ed.), For Pity Sake Publishing, 2020.

13 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on West Block

  1. Readers may be interested in my facebook post that refers to West Block.

    As the RAAF sets out to rescue Australians from another debacle, I remember my own evacuation, along with my two sons, aged 6 and 4, from Saigon in 1975. We too were in a Hercules, along with some of the 300 children from orphanages who were eventually adopted by Australians.
    These memories took me back to Sara Dowse’s brilliant fictionalisation of the Canberra public service around 1975, West Block, and her account of the fall of Saigon and the baby uplift, drawing in some of the details on the experiences of our family.

    • Oh thankyou Desley. I’ve read a couple of novels that reference the baby uplift, but I’ve never met someone who experienced it. Thanks so much for sharing. Must have been terrifying?

      I loved how Dowse took various issues contemporary at the time – the evacuation from Vietnam, the Ranger (Fox) enquiry, and wove them into her novel.

  2. I love reading books that take place in settings that I know, but I can’t think of any where the building was memorably important. (Except those silly Ann Radcliff gothic novels).
    But descriptions of suburbs, like TAG Hungerford’s stories from his childhood in Perth are just wonderful.

    • Thanks Lisa …I guess A gentleman in Moscow is an example? But I don’t think Towles uses the building in quite the same way. It’s described – his room, etc – but I don’t think it has presence?

  3. Sybylla’s grandmother’s house in My Brilliant Career is well enough described I could probably draw a picture of it. But public buildings ..I can’t think of any. (I did walk around the Palais de Justice in Paris to see if I could spot Maigret)

    • Haha, I loved that you did that.

      Re Sybylla’s grandmother’s house, do you think as well as describing it well, Franklin uses it to comment or convey something about her characters?

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

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