In 1983, when West Block was first released, there had been very little prose fiction set in Australia’s national capital. The first published novel to be set in Canberra was Plaque With Laurel, by M.Barnard Eldershaw, the pen name of Marjorie Barnard and Flora Eldershaw. It appeared in 1937. TAG Hungerford’s Riverslake was published in 1953, then there is a gap of twenty-four years till Robert Macklin’s The Paper Castle in 1977. Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach, 1981, was followed two years later by Sara Dowse’s West Block. West Block was and remains a pioneering work.
In Ric Throssell’s biography of his mother, Katharine Susannah Prichard, he notes her comment that Canberra was ‘like a town made by Pinocchio. All that neatness and prettiness, so far removed from the struggle for existence.’
Prichard’s view was a false one, as people who have lived in Canberra for any length of time will know, but probing beneath the false view, forging a place for Canberra in Australian literature, took courage and effort, and was quite often received with a hostility which may seem strange to readers in 2020.
I consider it a privilege to review a re-issue of West Block almost forty years after its first release. The novel is as timely now as it was in the 1980s, combining, as it does, unforgettable insights into the workings of federal politics with an imaginative study of flawed human lives.
West Block begins with a prologue dated December 1977, then is divided into five sections, taking readers into the hearts of five very different characters.
George Harland has risen to a senior position in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and has served for more than two decades under Coalition governments, compared with only three under Labor, these three being the Whitlam years. His commitment is to the smooth running of government, rather than policies or political visions. Then his daughter Marion announces she is leaving her husband and her two young sons. Her politics are far to the left of her father’s and George suddenly finds himself re-considering his life and the work which has formed such a large part of it. How far this re-consideration takes him is left for readers to decide.
The government is about to decide whether or not to open a new uranium mine. Henry Beeker, lower in the hierarchy than George Harland, but still a senior, experienced public servant, brings all his skill and intelligence to bear on ensuring that the decision is a responsible one. A trip to Brussels almost ends in disaster, while back home, Beeker and others work through draft after draft of their submission. Then they have to face the Cabinet.
Catherine Duffy is caught up in the chaos that was Saigon as the city fell to the North Vietnamese. Catherine has got to know a number of Vietnamese refugees as part of her work with overseas students, and become friends with one family in particular. In 1975 she is sent to Saigon to assist with the evacuation of children, and is able, through an act of personal courage, to help one of her friend’s relatives to escape.
Economist Jonathan Roe seeks compromise with the hard-liners in his own department, as well as in Treasury. A personal crisis threatens to undo him, but his outlook on life is profoundly changed by the birth of a child.
And Cassie Armstrong, head of the small, dedicated Women’s Equality Branch, watches as their ability to bring about change for women is eroded and side-lined. Exhausted and demoralised, Cassie finally reaches breaking point.
West Block, the building, is the novel’s sixth protagonist, containing a host of minor characters as well as the main ones. In her Author’s Note, prefacing the new edition, Dowse says, ‘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.’
Dowse began working in West Block when she joined Prime Minister and Cabinet to head their inaugural Women’s Affairs Section, where she remained until 1977. She resigned in protest after the unit was moved to another department.
Readers first meet West Block on a summer night when ‘the naked white building stood out like an iceberg on a northern sea’. Collapse is imminent, but we must wait to discover why.
In lyrical prose and images that are crystal clear, Dowse celebrates Canberra’s physical beauty through each markedly different season. ‘Russet leaves brushed against the window. The fog had lifted; the sun shone white and gold.’ Autumn gives way to winter and winter to spring, while inside the departments and the Parliament, bureaucrats who genuinely believe their role is to serve the public struggle against bitter disappointment.
In this beautifully produced new edition, Dowse’s voice speaks to readers across the decades, in a voice that is at once intimate, authoritative, sad, and yet hopeful too.
This review was published in the Canberra Times on September 26. As I say in my review it was a privilege to be asked to write about West Block and to revisit the novel after nearly forty years.
Here’s another lockdown poem, partner to one I wrote in an earlier post.
Smiling Behind Masks
with thanks to Marilyn Chalkley, who gave me the idea
Smiling behind masks
is becoming something of an art.
Smiles starting with the eyes
move downwards to a barrier
of cotton or of polyester,
a definite, clear line in daylight,
less so before sunrise
when I walk by the sea.
Masks cover more than half a face,
while the rest must carry
all expressions, or else hint at secret ones.
Smiling behind masks
is becoming something of an art.
People have chosen many shades,
from black to white, flowers and swirling abstracts,
football colours marking tribal loyalties.
Eyes speak, making up for hidden mouths,
for noses which might wrinkle at a joke well told.
A loosening of skin around the temples,
at the hairline, becomes a message
and a kind of grace.
Smiling behind masks
is becoming something of an art.
I wait beside the other sunrise walkers
staring at the place where sky meets sea.
My dog waits with me. Others, too, have dogs,
minding their own business.
Gold gathers strength on the horizon,
thrusting pink and grey aside.
I sigh behind my mask,
warm air captured then released.
The first morning, like the song says:
the first birds have spoken earlier, while it was still dark,
while I hurried to get ready; coat, then shoes, then this thing
that I breathe in and out behind,
as the gold bursts and the day says, here I am.
In these times of lockdown and uncertainty I am more grateful then ever for the shops that have supported me by selling my books, and by encouraging readers to try them. In this post I want to thank Karen and Paul for their help and enthusiasm. Karen and Paul run the Point Lonsdale newsagency and post office. Last summer it was Karen’s idea to have a book signing day outside the shop, which did very well. Thank you to this small business, and to all small businesses everywhere who support their local artists. The photo is of Karen and myself outside the shop.
I’m very pleased that my novel ‘Gerard Hardy’s Misfortune’ has been longlisted for the Sisters in Crime Davitt Award. Way back in the mists of time, the first of my Canberra crime novels, ‘The Trojan Dog’, was runner-up in the inaugural Davitt Award. Then there were relatively few entries. This year there were 124. Women’s crime fiction is powering ahead in Australia.
My prose muse had deserted me for the moment, but I’ve been writing poems. The first one is called Smiling from a distance.
Smiling from a distance
People smile at one another
from a distance on the beach.
I think we might perfect the shine of distant smiles.
‘Hello,’ we call. ‘Good morning, afternoon, or evening.’
It’s become suddenly important to mark passage,
mark the time, to speak, stranger to stranger
across a measured space.
Waves lift. Light dances on water, water drinks the light.
The beach is still open to walkers,
provided that they walk in ones or twos;
open to surfers sharing drop and curl.
While on the headland, there above me, silhouetted,
a paraglider’s stopped by police in uniform.
He would fly, or as near as he is able,
but stands grounded, his sail filled with air.
Inland, just a little way, my sister walks straight corridors,
locked inside a nursing home.
Yet on the phone she’s cheerful,
pleased that she can walk at all, while many can’t.
I send her a smile across the short, uncoverable distance
separating us. Imagining, I place my feet just so.
Can a smile be measured?
I think the answer is both yes and no.
One and a half metres, repeated like a mantra,
becomes a background to the everyday.
No need for tapes: the eye does just as well.
Four women in a park sit properly, legal distance well observed,
wearing coats and beanies, for the air is cold.
They call out; one laughs, raising her hand to join the conversation.
Across this open human space they smile.
Second hand bookshop under lockdown.
The books form towers, in shadows
by the doorway and around the walls.
We are here, they say, our words are here.
Our spines face outwards to the dim room and closed door.
We are not arranged by date or author,
but known to the old man who has given us a home.
For many years I have been a customer,
coming in from the hot light of Hesse Street
in summer, or in winter,
having crossed the road against the slanting rain.
Always it has been the same inside,
the same smell, old and welcoming.
The owner sits outside on a wooden bench,
eating an ice-cream, affecting nonchalance.
I take a few steps forward, then ask, ‘Are you open?’
‘I might be,’ he says.
I stand on a chair and read titles with difficulty
in the corner furthest from the door.
If I were so rash as to choose one
from near the bottom of a pile
and attempt to remove it,
all those above would fall down and crush me.
It would be a way to go, I think.
For a wordsmith like myself, not a bad way to go.
The owner has come in, still eating his ice-cream
as though it were some kind of prophylactic
or excuse. ‘How are you coping?’ he asks.
I turn awkwardly, careful not to dislodge
by even a puff of breath, the tower
which seems to me now a statement in itself.
‘I’m alright,’ I say. ‘And you?’
‘I’m a bit lost,’ he says.
I nod and point. ‘I’ll have that one.’
It’s not the old friend I imagined finding and re-reading,
but in a bookshop under lockdown beggars can’t be choosers.
We exchange a glance. The old man, keeping his distance, smiles.
The libraries are all shut, of course,
and the proper bookshop up the road.
I pay the princely sum of seven dollars
and leave with my purchase underneath my arm.
Can books transmit the virus?
I hope not. Can I catch it by touching any one of them?
I believe not, but will wash my hands in case.
I realise I wasn’t watching the old man
get down the book I wanted without causing an avalanche.
No doubt he has his methods.
I would like to turn back and ask, but do not.
Instead I climb into my car and drive home.
Much as I dislike agreeing with Ernest Hemingway about anything, I find I am in agreement with him about Chekhov’s gun.
Hemingway’s views on hunting and bullfighting would alone be enough to put me off, but when I was staying at the Chateau de Lavigny (a Swiss writers residence) back in 2006, I found a marvellous collection of letters in the library. Famous writers from Europe and the United States had stayed at Lavigny over the years and the extract below is from a letter Hemingway wrote in the 1930s to his German publisher.
Hemingway was nursing a broken arm, having shot ‘a big horn mountain sheep ram, two bears and a bull elk’. Clearly the confinement caused by his injury didn’t suit him, since his letters at that time are full of complaints.
‘I have been here for a month with my right arm broken off clean below the shoulder, so I have not answered your cables or letters. Will you please send me press reviews of Farewell to Arms and some copies of Manner. I have never yet received even one copy of Manner. If you do not treat me better about books and make me more money, I will have to get another publisher.’
Some readers might applaud this forceful attitude, but to me it smacks of the egotism I associate with Hemingway.
So what is it about ‘Chekhov’s gun’ that finds me reluctantly siding with him?
The principle, stated simply, is that writers should not make narrative promises to readers that they don’t fulfil. The image Chekhov famously used was a rifle hanging on the wall.
‘If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.’ (quoted in Chekhov: The Silent Voice of Freedom.)
Not making false promises to readers sounds like a laudable principle, but, to return to the image of the gun, what if there’s not one hanging on the wall, but several? What if the wall is liberally decorated with guns? Should they all go off?
I’m thinking of ‘red herrings’, and the important part they play in crime fiction. Do readers feel cheated when the ‘red herring’ gun fails to go off? I don’t. I don’t mind narrative cul de sacs, or inconsequential characters making cameo appearances.
Some writers do have all the guns going off; their narratives are full of bangs and blows. I’m not that kind: I find constant violent action irritating. As a reader, I prefer to puzzle out things alongside the protagonist (or protagonists). I like room for reflection.
Hemingway mocked Chekhov’s principle and valued inconsequential details. He cited instances in his short stories of characters who appear then disappear without making an obvious contribution to the plot.
I find it a sweet irony that Hemingway managed to break his arm while killing animals for so-called ‘sport’. If the shooting accident had been in one of his stories, rather than something that had actually happened to him, where was the narrative moment for which the accident was a ‘kept promise’ of the kind Chekhov had in mind?
It would be lovely if Chekhov were able to have the last word on this, but unfortunately he can’t.
Hemingway had the last word when he committed suicide by shooting himself at the age of sixty-one. In that sense at least, all the former gunplay, the posturing and complaints weren’t false promises. The gun on the wall did go off many times and the last time it killed him.
photo of Dorothy Sayers
“Time and trouble will tame an advanced young woman, but an advanced old woman is uncontrollable by any earthly force.”
This wonderful quotation is from Clouds of Witness, a 1926 mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, the second in her series featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.
I haven’t read Clouds of Witness, so I don’t know who says it, or whereabouts in the novel it comes. I should read it, being myself a lover and writer of mysteries.
I have, however, quoted Sayers’s lines quite often during the last few years. I sent them to a friend after I joined Grandmothers for Refugees. (I’m not grandmother, so I had to become an associate member.)
But I’m old enough to be a grandmother, which is the point.
I have nothing against young women. Many whom I meet are brave and wonderful, but I admit to indulging a private smile at the picture of them tumbling, gracefully, regretfully, at hurdles, while we grannies and would-be grannies, with our grey hair and whiskered chins march on.
I’m particularly mindful of the need to keep marching on as the launch of my twelfth novel approaches. I should feel proud to have got this far, and I do. I should feel grateful to all the people who have helped and continue to help me, and I definitely do. I look back at the hurdles where I fell and lay there panting, then got up again and stumbled on.
Sayers says we advanced old women are unstoppable by earthly forces. Of course it’s conceited to claim we are advanced. But I think we’re entitled to the claim when we look back at the hurdles and realise that any one of them might have been the end.
When I think of earthly forces, I mainly think of human ones, that did not want me to succeed. I don’t think of the wind and rain, the wild storms that have never been my enemies.
Thank you Dorothy Sayers, for your foresight and your strength of purpose. Thank you all the other writers of my age, who have never given up.
My Big Breast Adventure is a path breaking book which crosses the boundaries between a factual account of one woman’s breast cancer treatment, a philosophical discussion about what it means to be sick – and what it means to be well – and a celebration of humour in the face of adversity.
‘..when one has just had a cancer diagnosis and is about to undergo major surgery, laughter is at a premium and does not come easily,’ Jennifer McDonald writes.
Yet an early chapter heading reads ‘Cut, Poison, Burn and Laugh’ and time and again I found myself laughing while reading My Big Breast Adventure, which is based on the author’s blog posts and includes comments by readers. When I stopped to think and wipe my eyes, I asked myself why I was laughing when the author was going through hell. Answer: I was laughing because she made me laugh. McDonald’s humour is the buffer between her threatened sanity and the daily, weekly, monthly rounds of tests and chemo, radiation, more tests and more chemo.
There are many examples I could choose: here is one about hair loss.
‘I cut all of mine off before starting treatment even though my carers told me the hair probably wouldn’t fall out until about week three. Why wait to be bald I say? No word (or movement thankfully) on the eyebrows and lashes as yet. As my sister reminded me though, we McDonald girls come from staunch Celtic, Methodist stock which means we have eyebrows like John Howard and leg hair like the family dog.’
McDonald’s humour is like a dance with a quick, flicking two-step at the end. It is insouciant, irreverent, compassionate and warm. As readers would expect, anger and sadness, nausea and crushing fatigue are part of the story. They are acknowledged and dealt with. Jokes don’t take the dark side away; they make it into something more.
‘..I believe there are much worse things than death – being kidnapped by Boko Haram, having your business put into general administration, sitting by the bedside of a dying loved one, or living in Tony Abbott’s (Australian Prime Minister at the time of writing) electorate. Hang on, I do live in his electorate –what the FEC?’
FEC is an acronym for an extra chemo cocktail which McDonald took for nine weeks after her twelve-week standard chemo program was finished. For Father Ted fans, it’s also an irresistible reminder of Mrs Doyle offering a cup of tea to Father Jack. McDonald of course makes the most of this connection.
When discussing the importance of active acceptance, the author refers to Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, and on the next page quotes a poem by an ancient Sufi mystic. Quotations and references abound, but they never feel intrusive in the text, or stuck on for effect. They don’t detract from the central story; they enrich it.
McDonald makes the point that, while, she has striven for accuracy in describing her treatment and its effects, both physical and emotional, My Big Breast Adventure is not a therapy manual. Though she refers throughout to aspects of traditional and complementary medicine, she stresses that her approach is personal; she is not setting out to tell others what to do when they receive a cancer diagnosis, or where to look for help and guidance. Yet I’m sure her book will be a help and guide to many, not least because of her unfailing sense of humour.
- My Big Breast Adventure can be purchased for $24.99 paperback and $9.99 ebook from For Pity Sake Publishing.
To celebrate Christina Stead week this year, Lisa Hill at ANZ Litlovers is hosting a selection of reviews and appreciations of Stead’s work. As my contribution, I’ve written an appreciation, rather than an objective review of For Love Alone.
For Love Alone meant a great deal to me when I first read the novel in the mid nineteen seventies, a time when I was teaching myself to write. It is among the top ten, if not top five novels from which I learnt the most. The mid nineteen seventies was also the time I met Christina Stead, while she was a writer-in-residence at Monash University. This post – which is really more of a personal testament than a critique of the novel – is not the place to describe our meeting. Suffice to say, Stead struck me as both gracious and formidable – gracious in that she had taken the time to read and think about a manuscript I’d sent her – formidable, as well as accurate, in her criticism of it.
While I learnt much from For Love Alone, I understood, young as I was, that it would be vain and foolish ever to imagine I could write like its author. But I identified with the struggle of Stead’s protagonist, Teresa Hawkins, to better herself through education, to scrimp and save in order to afford the fare to Europe. I also identified with the mistake she made in falling in love with the wrong man – not only a kind of generic ‘wrong man’ – but a man who was also her teacher.
And I fell in love with Stead’s prose, her language that is rich and deep, extraordinarily well orchestrated, heart-felt.
Jonathan Crow, the tutor who turns out to be nasty and self-serving, is the catalyst Teresa needs to get away from Australia, from Sydney. But what a Sydney Stead creates in the early parts of the book! I can never go to Watsons Bay without recalling her descriptions of the water and the summer heat, and Teresa and her sister Kitty, dressed in their best, heading off to their cousin’s wedding.
Stead’s London is the London of the 1930s, where Teresa finds work with the American radical, James Quick, a man who finally wins her affection and returns it. The title, For Love Alone, I have always read as ironic. It is not ‘for love alone’ that Teresa triumphs and learns to forge her own path; it is certainly not for romantic love, and she turns her back on the duties that might have kept her in Australia as a consequence of loving her immediate family.
During her lifetime, Stead was often maligned and misunderstood, the power of her prose sometimes frightening off readers and reviewers, not to mention the publishers who forced her to re-write The Man Who Loved Children and set it in America. Thankfully, Stead did not bow to the same kind of persuasion when it came to For Love Alone.
I’ve said I’m not going to describe my meeting with the author in this post, but I will finish it by mentioning one thing. It has always intrigued me how, in The Man Who Loved Children, Louisa helps her step mother to kill herself, or at least does not prevent it happening. When I met Stead at Monash, and asked her about this harrowing and memorable scene, she replied, ‘I could be violent with them (meaning her characters) because I was violent with myself.’
Here is a link to another contributor, who has reviewed Christina Stead: A Life of Letters by Chris Williams.
As time goes on I’ll be adding more.
The Art of the Possible is a comic novel in the tradition of Gert Loveday’s previous books: Crane Mansions and Writing is Easy. It is hilariously funny and at the same time quietly philosophical, with a warmth and humanity I have come to expect from the author.
This new book certainly does not disappoint. Bearer of the gentle philosophy in The Art of the Possible is doctor turned medical administrator, Frank Owlbrother, a lover since his childhood of Sagaworld comics and heroic Norse legends. From the start of the novel, Frank is at the mercy of his boss, a bully who takes medical newspeak to ridiculous heights; his wife; even his office cleaner. Then there are the Oldies, a political force to be reckoned with since the introduction of Optiviva, a wonder drug that makes people over 60 vigorous and increasingly aggressive. Hospital staff, the Oldies and their youthful opponents, cabinet ministers and even the Prime Minister, become involved in a dramatic tussle to win supporters and discredit one another.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for Frank, he doesn’t recognize himself in this job description: ‘Possessing excellent stakeholder management skills, you are a proven performer who enjoys driving strategic capability initiatives within a framework of dynamic management philosophies and paradigms.’ Frank is mildly but determinedly resistant to all those who would mould him to suit their own ends, including his wife, the hospital hierarchy, even a charismatic Russian who has transformed the lives of elderly people without the use of drugs.
Towards the end of the story, Frank discovers the joy and release of free running. Gert Loveday’s satire is often sharp, yet Frank’s misadventures are perfectly plausible when you’re in the midst of them. For those who know Gert Loveday’s books, this one will be a pleasure; those who don’t have a triple treat in store.
The Art of the Possible is available from Smashwords, Amazon, and soon to be released on other platforms.