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.