Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

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. Soon after, I wrote a Delicious Descriptions on West Block, promising another one on Canberra – because, well, I can, and Canberra is my city.

Introducing that West Block post, I said that I love reading for its ability to take me to other places, lives and cultures – of course – but that there it is also special to read about one’s own place and life. It can reinforce our own impressions; it can enable us to just sit back and remember; and, most interestingly, it can encourage us to look at things from a different angle or perspective. West Block does all of these for me.


So, Canberra. As many of you know, it’s a planned city, designed from the start to be Australia’s federal capital. It was formally “named” in 1913, but, of course, the land it was built on had been occupied for over 20 thousand years before that by Indigenous people, including the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples whom we honour today. In colonial times, it had also been farming/grazing country. All of this is referenced in West Block, though it is the contemporary built and natural environment which take precedence in the descriptions because they are what directly impact the characters.

Early in the novel, Dowse addresses the creation of the city when describing old-school George Harland’s decision to move to Canberra from the “hell” of western Victoria, the hot, dry “grass, scrub, dusk”. It had been the same, he thinks, in Canberra, but

With effort and planning and the help of some mountain streams they had beaten it. Everyone planted, in a peculiarly catholic way: silver birches and liquidambers, poplars, willows and rowan-trees, mixed with all manner of eucalyptus and acacia; the claret ash and grevillea, banksia, oleander, jonquils and hyacinth, till the colours of spring splashed over the streets, and autumn cart such a brilliant shadows they could never forget how they came to be.

I suspect there’s an intimation here too of the “catholic” development of Canberra’s population, of its comprising all sorts of people who came to work in this government city. Most of us were transplanted from elsewhere, like the exotic shrubs and trees; few of us had a family history in the place to ground us. Nearly 50 years on that has changed dramatically, but it wasn’t so at the time West Block is set.

Harland’s chapter in the novel contains some of my favourite descriptions of the city. I loved the account of his walk to work, and the various references to Canberra’s paradoxical nature as a city of physical beauty which also lacked “animation”. Harland thinks of Canberra’s past in terms of the farms, the “fields of lucerne that in earlier times had grown on the river flats”. It’s his Canberra-born daughter who reminds him of those for whom it had really been home. She takes him to her favourite park, telling him:

When I first started coming here I had no idea where I was. I mean Corroboree Park. Well, there’s nothing unusual in that. We’ve taken their language just as we have their land, and everything else. To make use of it as we will. But then I found out that this is really where they came to meet, all the tribes of this region, I like to imagine, under this very tree.

The novel is not about Indigenous dispossession and politics, but this reference, along with mentions of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy and of refugees, gently introduces the idea of all the people, in addition to Cassie’s women, whose needs were being ignored.

As well as its beautiful autumns, Canberra is known for crisp winters and clear, blue skies. There is a scene just after the new-style, more proactive bureaucrat, Henry Beeker, has been through a bruising IDC (interdepartmental committee) which had to prepare a joint submission to Cabinet on uranium development and the controversial Ranger Uranium Environmental Inquiry. Games are played and deals done to get the relevant departments to “work out some of the differences” between their ministers. Beeker goes outside with Cassie:

Outside the ground was damp from the morning’s frost, melting now with the warmth of the midday sun. Their feet made soft squishes in the turf. The sky was an uncompromising blue. Clouds bumped into each other, as if they too were invigorated by the crisp winter air.

These descriptions – “melting”, “uncompromising”, “bumping together” – perfectly evoke the physical environment but surely also reflect what Beeker has just gone through?

I have focused on a few examples that particularly speak to the novel’s meaning, but I revelled in all its descriptions of this beautiful city I call home.

Do you love reading novels set in your place – and if so, please share some!

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

22 thoughts on “Delicious descriptions: Sara Dowse on Canberra

  1. I have an old West Block on my shelves and I really should read it if only for the ACT square in Brona’s (November) Bingo.
    The Western District of Victoria is wet and green and has been planted with so many pines, poplars and willows that it hardly looks Australian any more.
    I did a post on Canberra a few years ago. Canberra was the name of the village (and church) when the site was selected – they decided to go with the name it already had.
    I said Canberra was named by the local Indigenous people ‘women’s breasts’ for Mt AInslie and Black Mountain (I guess). As Melanie/GTL pointed out, we were the victims of an Aboriginal boob joke.

    • Where’s the Western District, Bill? She talks about the west of Victoria and the hot winds
      from the Mallee.

      Re Canberra, there are different stories about its name – Nganbra / Nganbira which may have been anglicised to Canberry, which is regarded as the anglo name was known as. As for that meaning, I think it is only one of many put forward. I think too that that meaning was the valley or space between women’s breasts, not the breasts!

      Did I read your post? Surely I did. Will check.

  2. I’ve just read Janine Burke’s beautiful new collection of essays, which radiate outwards from the beachside suburb of Elwood in Melbourne where I once used to live. It was lovely!

      • It was back in the 70s, and she’s writing about now, but Elwood is the sort of suburb that doesn’t change all that much, and also, I’m often there visiting my dear friend Ros Collins.
        It all seemed very familiar to me.

        • No, some suburbs don’t do they. Some of Dowse’s West Block has changed a lot – Canberra has grown significantly, but other parts, particularly the description of the physical landscape and seasons and how we respond to them, still hold.

  3. Yes, you read my post (About Canberra, for Brona a couple of years ago).
    The Western District is roughly all of Victoria south and west of Geelong and Ballarat. So, from south to north, western Victoria goes Western District, Wimmera, Mallee

  4. I do love reading novels that are set in places I know well as I can imagine exactly what the streets and the countryside look like. There are a lot to choose from, Ian Rankin’s Rebus books, Alexnder McCall Smith to name a couple and I’ve just finished reading Mail Royal by Nigel Tranter which roams from north of Dundee, Perthshire and down to the border country. I know it all so well, and all the villages and castles mentioned, I’m sure it added a lot to my reading experience.

  5. I love that you love your city, ST ! – it’s heart-warming, especially so because we Others have always had a tendency to mock it. I wonder why. S’pose it’s for the same reason that makes Sydneysiders mock Melburnians – natural unpleasantness. Hmm .. Do I mean the Aussie tendency for tall poppy cutting ,,?
    It must be super to find writing like Dowse’s, that you can not only enjoy hugely but admire.
    As for ‘my’ city – I don’t know which it is. Not Perth, where I was born; not Sydney, where I lived for 41 years; and not (yet) Melbourne. P’raps I’d better try Brisbane of delaide ? – naah, too late for that.
    I have to face the fact that I’m bloody stateless. City-less.

    • Thanks M-R, I think Canberra’s planned nature and somewhat homogenous population has made it feel “sterile” to outsiders. But added to this is something we Canberrans hate which is the conflation of Canberra with the Averment, so that commentators say “Canberra” when they are talking about something – usually negative – that the Government has done. There are also all sorts of misinformation about Canberra. One that I heard when I moved here was that Canberra ns didn’t pay taxes! I can’t help wondering why, if people believed that, they didn’t flock here!

      My dear old Mum, who lived here for her last 23 years and called them the best years of her life, would say “Let them knock Canberra. We don’t want it to get bigger!”

      So after 41 years Sydney didn’t feel like home? (Actually, Mum was there for 31 years and it didn’t feel like home for her either.) Anyhow, do you think Melbourne might do it for you or do you like being fancy-free?

  6. Sue, you mention the language of the native people being stolen in this post. Is Canberra doing anything to revitalize the language? The Ojibwe reservation I grew up on has a good relationship with the college nearby, so that Ojibwe is a language students can take for credit. Also, signs on the reservation are now in both English and Ojibwe. I do hope there is a resurgence because the very little studying I did of Ojibwe fascinated me. For instance, they don’t have a word for apple pie per se, they have one huge word that describes an apple pie: mishiimini-baashkiminasigani-biitoosijigani-bakwezhigan.

    • Good question Melanie. There are language revitalisation projects happening all around Australia, in different ways. Some are completely within the that language’s community and done reach out to others. There is a language program happening here. And in fact one of our news readers who has Indigenous heritage opens and closes each of his news bulletins with Yuma (hello) and Yarra (goodnight). It started a year ago and I was thrilled.

      • That’s excellent! Even a small start, like getting viewers (or is it listeners?) to repeatedly hear Yuma and Yarra can make a difference by suggesting the importance of this language, or even garnering more attention.

        • Yes, I think most of us know things like Hello, Goodbye, Thankyou, Yes and No, in several languages, so knowing those, for a start in a local language is truly respectful.

  7. Comment emailed to me from MaggieCP and which she agreed for me to post here:

    I’ve greatly enjoyed this post about Canberra and its depiction in Sara Dowse’s West Block.

    When I came to Canberra in 1964, aged 20, Canberra seemed to me like a large country town, and by 1980, the time of West Block, a large provincial town.

    Coogee, the Sydney beach suburb where I grew up, was almost cosmopolitan by comparison, though I didn’t think so at the time. Ours was a life of sun, sand and surf, and the smell of salt, suntan oil and hot chips assailed our noses as we walked home along Coogee Bay Road from the beach after school.

    After the 1956 Sydney Olympics, more and more kids had swimming coaching, and a boy from the flats next door, Sven Coomer, had been the youngest competitor in the Australian team (in the modern pentathalon)

    Migrants, many of them displaced persons, were just a part of our life we took for granted. There were coffee shops and amazing European cakes in cake shops. Migration was much more than polka and pizza, though, and my brother commented that at at our high school in Moore Park, ‘On Jewish holidays the A classes ceased to function’. I’ve always been aware of their huge contribution to Australian life.

  8. Thanks Maggie. I really enjoyed your reflections on those two places in past times. I think Canberra has caught up in cosmopolitanism now (to a degree).

    Love your brother’s comment – it speaks to the value Jewish families tend to place on education (at last as I was taught so in the Sociology of Education classes back in the early 1970s.)

Leave a Reply to wadholloway Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s