In 2010 Newsouth Books began publishing its City Series of monographs about major Australian cities. Apart from Perth and Darwin, the capital cities have been covered to date. Each volume combines personal memoir with a bit of history, anecdote and meditation. Among those I’ve read to date, Delia Falconer’s Sydney (2010) is a city of historical layers and perpetual change that reflects not just a transition from primeval wilderness to colonial outpost and beyond, but the emergence of a modern, world-class, and self-conscious capital from the provincial neighborhoods of Falconer’s youth. Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne (2011) is a city of enclaves, of suburbs with their unique subcultures experienced in the course of the author’s journey through life.
Eleanor Hogan’s Alice Springs (2012) is a bit of a different beast. For one thing, Hogan is not a native of the city she describes, nor has she lived the majority of her life there or been wholly shaped by her experience of Alice. Of course, in some respects, this makes her typical of many residents, past and present, of the town. And yet to the extent that any of the titles in this series are written for outsiders (like myself), the portrait of the city she presents accords more to the experience that a visitor is likely to come away with, even a visitor (like myself) with multiple sojourns over decades of time. This fact has led to some criticism of Hogan’s perspective, especially from that cadre of white Australian town residents who were born or bred there.
On the other hand, as a government bureaucrat employed in the town’s Indigenous services sector beginning in 2003, Hogan obtained a more nuanced view of life as lived by the other dominant cultural bloc in the area: the black Australian residents, long-term or temporary, whose lives circle around this Centralian outpost. In this respect, too, Hogan is an outsider: although confronted with evidence of the stresses in the lives of the Indigenous citizens on a daily basis, she remains apart. She has keen insights, but she remains puzzled and unsure. In the opening pages of the book, she describes the area surrounding her new office “in a converted butcher’s shopfront near the Gap.”
It’s more down-to-earth than where I was before, in the public service offices near the Mall in the central business district — perhaps almost a little too down-to-earth at times. Now and again there are splashes of broken glass across the path, including for a while the label of a vodka bottle crushed into the pavement. Sometimes there are trails of blood, tracing out stories of fights and assaults. And once a man lying in the middle of the road, a cordial bottle beside him filled with what looked like port.
Although in the pages that follow Hogan introduces us to individuals with particular life-stories and trajectories, they can be as nearly anonymous as that man lying in the road, and often what she records are traces, evidence from which stories can only be inferred, not known. At the outset, she gives us the impression that there are really two cities here, each only barely discernible to the other, following parallel paths through history.
Even the most vivid encounters remain mysterious, with motivations and aspirations unguessable. Towards the end of Chapter 3, Hogan recounts a story of how, heavy with a cold or flu, she emerges from the Gap Road Smart Mart to encounter an old lady (“I say ‘old’, but she might be only a few years older than me, mid- to late-forties”) who cadges a lift from her. They head off toward an unspecified destination; “I’ll show you,” the lady says. The old lady dozes off as they drive up Gap Road towards the CBD. Upon reaching the centre of town, she rouses herself and directs Hogan left along Larapinta Drive. They travel westward, out towards Mt Gillen, and finally turn off into the suburb of Larapinta. Apparently aimless wanderings up and down the streets ensue, along with requests to Hogan to buy beer and cigarettes. Hogan is feeling sicker by the minute; the old lady has her own respiratory ailments. After they circle around for a while, the old lady recognizes a block of flats. They park.
We get out of the car, and she goes to a flat at the rear of the block. A couple of skinny, bushy-haired women come out. They give me a cursory glance, and start talking in language. A man sits in the darkness of the flat behind them. I don’t feel unsafe, but I don’t feel part of the picture.
I go back to the car and get the lady’s bags out, and give them to her.
‘Wait, she says. ‘Wait.’
… I’m not sure I want to stay around. I don’t have the patience for this, and I’m feeling crook. … I walk back to my car, jump in and drive off. No one appears to see me go or tries to stop me. I drive back towards my unit in the Gap area, passing the Smart Mart on my way. The place is dark and shuttered as I go past. … The next day the smoky smell of cooked kangaroo gradually dissipates from my car.
Stories of such encounters fill the book, most but not all of them with the Indigenous people Hogan works with. Her judgement that “I don’t feel part of the picture” resonates in many of them. There is the thriving lesbian community, the Pine Gap families, the athletes who come to compete in the Master Games. (They last inspire Hogan to take up an ambitious program of desert cycling.) There are few single men. There are transient government workers, carpetbaggers, and the dedicated traditional owners who form the nucleus of the Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation striving to integrate their community into the economic life of the town and the region. There are repeated legal encounters, courtroom sagas of violence and sorrow. Hogan offers acute portraits of all she encounters, and if her composite of the life of Alice Springs is incomplete it is no less authentic that the views of the capital cities that can be had in the other volumes of this series.
If there is a striking difference between Hogan’s account of life in Alice Springs and, say, Falconer’s story of Sydney, it is in the relative absence of historical narrative. This book is a portrait, above all, of Alice Springs in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and although she looks backwards from time to time, she most definitely does not dwell in the past and the past does not inform the present in the way that Falconer and Cunningham imbue their modern cities with guiding spirits from days gone.
After seven years in Alice, Hogan left to take up work in Melbourne. she adjusted quickly to the urban life again, but with a heightened sense of the contrasts between her new first-world surroundings and the strangeness and the hardships of life in the Centre. She was reminded of her stay in Alice as much by the presence of Aboriginal art work in urban offices as by the absence of Opel unleaded fuel. Most of all, she was struck by the way in which the Centre, and especially the lives of its Aboriginal people, is so much an intellectual construct, “internal and notional” is how she describes it, among her left-leaning, sophisticated city friends. Reflecting on the NTER, she concludes her penultimate chapter is these words:
The media attention given to remote Indigenous issues, including the Intervention, is often sporadic and sensationalistic, the intermittent ‘Aboriginal reality show’ which Marcia Langton describes. I don’t think the level of dysfunction and marginalisation Indigenous people often face in Central Australia is well understood; neither is the lack of access to services and resources that many urban Australians take for granted. Living in a place, perhaps fittingly in the country’s dead centre, where people in extreme need pass you every day in the street brought that home to me. Returning to Melbourne, I feared forgetting much.
It has been over two decades now since I first traveled to Australia and set down in Sydney, Melbourne, and Alice Springs. Reading these three treatises from Newsouth Books on those cities, I felt like I encountered more stories that were new to me about Sydney and Melbourne, grasped more about the history of the place and the breadth of experience they encompass. But I came away from Hogan’s story of Alice Springs feeling that I understood the fabric of its life better, more fully, for the time I had spent in its pages. Hogan’s Alice Springs is a paradoxical book: an outsider’s story that nonetheless pierces deeply the body of the town it describes, a somewhat ahistorical view that resonates with timelessness. In the end, though, it is a rich tapestry and should become a classic of Outback literature that readers will turn to in decades to come as a touchstone story of an Australian frontier.