Wednesday, September 17, 2003
A note from Alice Springs
From the diary, September 7
Strange how almost entirely out of words I've been lately. Words are supposed to be my business. I guess visiting here reinforces this, I appear in the guise of The Professional Writer, which I suppose I am, and which seems also, from my point of view, an especially meaningless epithet.
I am sitting here, at the Mercure Diplomat Hotel (more a motel, I think) in Alice Springs, outside the restaurant. I am enclosed by a kitsch metal picket fence, which separates the outside verandah tables from the street. I have just eaten tempura quail (wrapped in nori and fried in not-quite tempura batter, a not-quite-successful dish). I am looking across the street at the ubiquitous Ray White Real Estate. Down the road I can see Subway and Pizza Hut, and a little way past where I can see are Coles and K-Mart and Target. I could be in any small town in regional Australia. The sun has gone down, but it's still warm, unlike the previous two nights, when the temperature dropped sharply after sundown. In about fifteen minutes I will order dessert. Meantime I smoke a cigarette, drink the really not bad Shiraz, and write this. I could be a character in a Thomas Mann novel, minus the view; if I were, I suppose all my comfortable aesthetic certainties would be about to be shattered. Just as well I don't have any.
The view isn't very far away. It's all around Alice Springs, as if the town was an island in the middle of a vast ocean. As indeed this place once was: the sea has come and retreated seven times from inland Australia. The view is the Macdonnell Ranges, ancient rocks which jut out of the flat plains, red sedimentary layers which have weathered down into strange hyperreal shapes, covered with tussocks of pale spinifex. In the daylight, which is pale and preternaturally clear, they seem almost too sharp to look at.
It seems impertinent to speak about the society here, after only two days: I'm aware of complexities which I can only smell the edges of. As a visitor, you immediately notice that there are no black faces in any of the shops; I am told the employment rate among Aboriginals here is five per cent. I see clumps of young indigenous boys walking aimlessly in the town centre, up and down and around, maybe ten or twelve years old, who are dressed like American home boys. On the way in from the airport, we drove past an Aboriginal camp. I thought at first it was a state school, it had that institutional look of buildings arranged in rows, a chainlink fence. Aboriginal people are everywhere, sitting in groups in the shade on library lawn or in the mall, as if the ground were their loungerooms, and the question of race comes up in almost every conversation, as class does in England. All that is clear to me is that I know far less than I thought I did, and I didn't think I knew much.
On Friday night I met Mitch, a local indigenous woman who teaches at the Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education Creative Writing Department. I liked her, she had that frankness, the unillusioned glance full of a certain gentleness, which sometimes passes between women and bypasses all barriers of race, however temporarily and contingently. She told me that the Macdonnell Ranges are called their caterpillars by the local people. It fits them much better than their given name, which suggests some kind of Scottish granite: from the air they look like caterpillars laid in rows on the ground. She was a gentle woman filled with anger. She read a poem which demanded that white people feel shame for what they have done (for what they continue to do) to the indigenous people here, which demanded revolution. And I thought, is shame enough? I thought: I am white. I know what my people have done. My family is full of people who did terrible things to people like your family. As Governor-General of India, my great great Uncle Bee gave orders which oppressed the local people, and no doubt were responsible for the deaths of some of them. He would have believed, unshakeably, in the innate superiority of the White Man. He killed himself: was it out of shame? (I believe he was ashamed). What shamed him? A mistake which led to the deaths of some of "his men"? Was it only that? Or did the degradation of an entire people under his authority also play in his suicide? Was there something of that subconscious fear that Kapuschinski speaks of, which inhabits all those who colonise, all those who know - despite all their justifications of civilisation and progress - that their right to a place is only a right of conquest? I will never know; his death was given out as an accident, and only my grandmother knew it was deliberate, because of a letter he wrote her. I don't think that the disenfrachisement of the Indian population was a factor in his private anguish; his world view would have precluded such an idea. But perhaps the sickness of the coloniser, the gap between ideal and practical enforcement, the tropes of "civilised life" and their ugly price, was part of it. Well, they are all dead, and their secrets with them. And I am sitting in Alice Springs inside this fence, which is there to stop Aboriginal people wandering onto these tables, looking through it to the empty carpark across the road, and at Subway and Pizza Hut, symptoms of another colonisation. White and black: even the few encounters I've had here show me that it is anything but black and white. The gulfs of expectation, the difficulties of communicating across such widely divergent cultures, both so complex and based on such different views of lif and identity, are there all the time. And also the relationships, the contiguities, the strange connections, the unexpected empathies.
When Mitch finished reading her poem she was in tears, and gestured for a tissue to wipe her eyes. I always carry some in my bag, so I got up and gave her one of them. Perhaps it meant something. Perhaps it is only sentiment to think so. All the same, the gesture was real; everyone cries sometime, and sometimes it is necessary for all of us to recognise, to have recognised, the dignity of our tears.
Return from the Black Lagoon
My blog has been nagging me: when I started it, I wondered if I would just let it peter out, through lack of time or energy, and for the past few weeks that looked likely. Thanks to those who have asked me when I was going to start it again - one is never sure whether these things are read. So here I am again. Since finishing The Riddle, I have just been a sad blob, incapable for at least a month of writing anything (or even stirring out of a chair). I don't think I have ever felt so depleted; maybe it's because I'm getting older, or maybe it's because I am working harder. Or maybe both.
And then I went to Alice Springs for the Alice Springs Festival. Maybe the best thing I could have done was go to the desert, although it made me even more wordless, and filled my head with huge spaces of light and ancient seas, so that I felt kind of stoned when I returned, and the clouds and rain over Melbourne seemed like walls, a cap on limitlessless. I watched the landscape from the plane on the way home: it was like flying over a vast modern painting, full of colour and nuance and motion, and most of all time: the work and erosion of rivers, their beds like dark veins, the delicate white of the salt lakes, the miles and miles of rippling red dunes, the incredible colours. Well, I'm not saying anything that hasn't been said before: shamefully, I've never, after three decades of living in this country, seen the Centre before. And it's impossible to represent what it's like to be there, to stand underneath the huge oxidised cliffs of Simpson's Gap, with their strange geometric formations, their polished red stone: you could paint it, you can describe it, but nothing can quite give the sense of its bigness and thereness. Maybe that is the problem with all representation, of anything, but it seemed to me a problem writ large and dramatic there.