Social life in a desert city

Integration into a community is reflected not only by participation in community organisations but also in day-to-day living. Before I went to live in Canberra, I had been told that the fledgling city was occupationally structured, viz. diplomatic, military service, public service, academic (the small private sector did not rate a mention); secondarily, by class. But it was not so. … …

… … those with high expectations (e.g. the Australian Foreign Service employees) or high hopes (some of the other public servants) or those who had indeed ‘arrived,’ built large homes in the appropriate developing new suburbs. I know that many an aspiring resident was hocked up to his eyeballs in preparation for the expected powerful but relatively impecunious life – to the extent that he had to stoop to serve flagon wine camouflaged in carafes (he could not afford decanters either) at his dinner parties. This might also explain, in part, why so many of these were so willing to accept dinner invitations were so slow to reciprocate. … …

Newcomers, with the right attributes, who were able to get in touch with the right people on arrival, and to keep up with them, were promised intelligent and suave company. My wife and I had little trouble getting in, and staying in part of, the diplomatic and academic circuits; but it was patently difficult to maintain one’s place at an elevated public service one. … …

A great problem in socialising in that city at that time was that so many of the aspiring public servants lacked what my mother-in-law described as ‘social graces’. When the wife of a low-grade public servant put out good quality fabric serviettes (napkins), or when his sideboard displayed expensive decanters for spirituous liquor, or when the dinner table was set with patently expensive tableware, one could also sense that we were seen as acting beyond our station. One buffoon actually turned over his dinner plate (before he’d filled it, of course) to confirm its quality; he then commented on it.

… … In the main, where the other wife had been acculturated to some extent, we were fine; where she lacked confidence or was under the influence of her priest, there would be no communication, even if the men were close colleagues and friendly. For example, in a new suburb, my wife invited our new neighbours to coffee. They accepted. Later in the day, the local priest visited some. None of these women was then free to visit. There was also no suggestion of a gathering another day. “A broad hat does not always cover a venerable head” is an old English saying. We were of the wrong faith.

… … Prejudice planted on ignorance is a terrible contribution to a much desired multicultural society. The city also tends to debase humanity. There is so much patronage, backstabbing, character assassination, gossiping, politicking and petty skulduggery, especially in more recent times, that one has to make a point of being seen to be dissociated from all that, and many of us did so successfully.

There were some very interesting experiences in our social life in higher atmospheres. At a foreign affairs party, on that election night when a change of government after twenty-three years occurred, my wife and I were the only uncommitted voters present; the rest were staunch supporters of the Labor Party. My host could not tell me what proportion of the staff in his department were of that persuasion. I had been told that, in the Treasury, the committed at that time were assessed at more than eighty-five per cent.

At another foreign affairs party, a local gynaecologist was berating the dishonesty of female patients from the public sector, who had sought and obtained sick leave from him on all matter of pretences. When someone pointed out that he was guilty of collusion, he was not amused. Then there was a psychiatrist lassie who was irritated by me because she found (through a casual conversation) that I was “too normal.” (Should I have been insulted?) At a gathering of mixed academic and service people, some of the women were busily engaged in identifying the positions of the senior people present. My wife indicated her displeasure at this to one of the women, not knowing that she was the wife of the deputy secretary of an agency which had scheduled an interview for me in the following week. The interview was cancelled.

(The behaviour of some of the people in the national capital was, as suggested by the above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out,’ probably typical of other national capitals; as well, the city’s isolation from civilisation may have resulted in an educationally and culturally skewed sample of the broad population. Significantly, an American passenger sitting next to me said, as our plane was descending into the capital, “a small town set in the desert, isn’t it?” How true!

Without relatively easy access to the beaches (about 2 hours’ driving time) and Sydney (about 3 to 4 hours away), life in the national capital would have been totally isolating. Yet, when I arrived in the city, it had a grand population of less than 50,000; this enabled everyone to know about everyone else! And who was doing what to whom!!)