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An Except From West Block
FROM CASSIE ARMSTRONG’S DIARY
9 December 1977
I took one last look at night. It was dark, the parking lots were empty, and though it is summer the naked white building stood out like an iceberg on a northern sea.
Ice cracks; splinters. Chips fly in the blue-pink glow.
I tried to imagine time frozen, as if by such solidification, I could cradle history in my hand. But it melts with the heat of my fingers, my very passion to know.
That which has run its course takes its leave with grace. The Masai woman walks out in the desert to die.
I spent afternoons in a reading room beside a lake, piecing together a story. How it came to be that a building in a city in a nation stopped growing. As if there was only enough sap to get it so far, far enough to waken hopes and dash them. As if all a shoot can expect is a limited, fitful growth when planted in hostile soil.
Two years have passed since it happened, when with a shock the trunk imploded. Leaves withered and dropped. We were dazed, stunned with it, and I found myself a conservative. Not all change is good. Tomorrow, it seems certain, we shall be shoved further in that direction: the stump hammered deeper in the ground.
When I looked for the last time who would have thought that tomorrow they will start from the inside, ripping out the wires and fixtures, telephones and panelling. Old doors will go up for sale. The gutting has already begun. They took us, with our crateloads of files, folders, notepads, pencils, pens, white-out, typewriter ribbons, desk diaries, letter-openers, hatracks, dictionaries, ready reckoners, calculators, calendars, pot plants, feather dusters, staples, reels of sticky tape. But last night, in the dark, the windows glistened in the moonlight. The white facade gleamed.
My metaphor, this building, with its aimless corridors, draughty ceilings, its signs of age; yet withal a ripeness, speaking continuity, growth; regeneration.
Ministers came and went and reappeared, seeking to lay their hands on a splendid prize. The machinery of government.
It is 1977, two years after Australia’s constitutional crisis. The bureaucrats in West Block, home of the prime minister’s department, are recovering from the shock of Gough Whitlam’s dismissal.
George Harland schemes to preserve his departmental standing; Henry Beeker stakes his career on stalling a policy; Catherine Duffy risks her life rescuing victims of an ill-conceived one; Jonathan Roe sets off the tripwires in textbook economics. And Cassie Armstrong, head of the department’s women’s unit, is driven to despair.
Life is tense in West Block. Pigeons nest in the leaking roof. A move is imminent: it’s feared the government plans to tear the building down. Old time bureaucrats are adjusting to a new, feminist presence in its corridors. At one time or other housing most of the federal public service, West Block is more than just a rundown office building. Here is the nation in microcosm.
“With sensitivity and humour, Dowse has added features and soul to the faceless image of the public servant.” — The Australian
Sara Dowse is a prize-winning Australian novelist and reviewer. Born in Chicago, Dowse grew up in Hollywood, the daughter of an actor mother and celebrity lawyer father. After experiencing anti-Semitism, she left for Australia in 1958 at the age of nineteen. After studying arts at the University of Sydney, she arrived in Canberra in 1968 and worked as a journalist and also as a tutor and publishing assistant at the College of Advanced Education, now the University of Canberra. Dowse became the inaugural head of the Women’s Affairs Section of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for the Whitlam government. After resigning from the public service, Dowse worked as a teacher at the Australian National University, a reviewer for newspapers and journals, and became a writer of novels and short stories. She was forty-five when her first novel, West Block: The Hidden World of Canberra’s Mandarins, based on her experiences in the Prime Minister’s department, was published by Penguin in 1984. Dowse has also been awarded many prizes, including the ACT Book of the Year (in 1997 with Marion Halligan), and was short-listed for the Steele Rudd Award (1995) and long-listed for the IMPAC Dublin Prize (1996). She has also been the recipient of an Australia Council fellowship and a Harold White fellowship (1991). Dowse is known to be someone of considerable warmth and generosity, along with a great political drive.