Life in the desert of a capital

Initially, my wife and were involved with part of the diplomatic circuit. It was amusing to have everyone assume that I was a foreign diplomat and then to see them suddenly lose interest in me when I said that I was an Australian public service clerk. It was a good line which I used for years, to separate the ambitious, insincere ones from the nice people. The more mature ones usually stayed to talk, in spite of my lowly status.

It was in one of these talks that a British diplomat said to me, proudly, that he lived well through official entertainment – what he said was, “When I feed you, I too eat well.” Most diplomats were interesting people and, until the babies arrived, we had some firm friendships (babies and cocktail parties are mutually exclusive satisfactions).

Later, my wife and I found ourselves in an academic social circuit … There were many nice people there too, some becoming firm friends. As both groups had a floating population, it was difficult to have enduring friendships. Both groups offered a much-needed break from the intellectually barren and the many socially immature public service people. These were inclined to either talk shop (to highlight their importance?) or about babies and gardens (to avoid giving anything away about their work?). We found this sort of behaviour even with those senior public servants who were not overly conscious of the pecking order. “For a man by nothing is so well betrayed as by his manners” (Spencer).

We also socialised with a very wide range of European migrants, some of whom (the Germans and Austrians) claimed to have built the city. There were also Latvians, Swiss, Poles, Dutch, and others worth knowing. Then there was a Czech lady who greeted her fellow European male friend on a bitterly cold morning with, “And how’s every little thing?”

There were Hungarians who, at parties, gathered together and seemingly rode their horses across the steppe. And there was my Chinese GP who ate with us regularly (he was single), and told us about the afflictions which had befallen the local medical and nursing professions since his previous visit, and with great glee. He knew that we did not gossip. There were many interesting people about to meet and to know, but rarely within the public service.

Without the foreigners and the academics, Canberra, which was becoming a well-planned, clean and aesthetically pleasing city, was a dreadful place to live in. There were far too many working-class public servants, most of whom were careful not to mix with anyone below their official classifications. Many wives were then seemingly guided by their priests as to whom they could socialise with. It was (and still is) an artificial city, alienated from the real world, imbued with self-love, with ambition clouding sincerity, and bureaucratic power destroying the human spirit. But that’s where the bread was, so I stayed.

(The above extracts from ‘Destiny Will Out’ will indicate that I was not impressed with the bulk of my fellow public servants. Although the most senior officials I had met initially were gentlemanly in their speech and conduct, many of the newer ones were rough players.

In their efforts to contain my career aspirations, one actually threatened me; another spread a lie (I found the hidden document 2 years too late); and a number of others indicated clearly a keen preference for people of their kind, by moving me out of my official positions to place their own; and one was so obviously a racist that I stopped him by simply saying quite calmly (with a finger pointed skyward) that one day he would be judged (fancy that – a God-fearing racist!).

My disenchantment with many of those at lower levels was a combination of their insularity and a presentation which my mother-in-law described as ‘common’. For example, pulling out a chair or opening a door for the new breed of female employees was a health hazard!).