Eleanor Hogan’s “Alice Springs”

2013-books-hogan-alice-springsIn 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.

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4 Responses to Eleanor Hogan’s “Alice Springs”

  1. Eleanor says:

    Thanks, Will, for your thoughtful analysis and generous comments about my book.

    Usually, I don’t comment on online reviews,etc, as I understand it’s bad form to do so and it often looks defensive when I’ve seen people do it. Nevertheless, I thought (being a fellow blogger!) you might be interested in some comments in response to your review.

    Some of the differences between my book and those in the ‘Cities’ series are probably due to the fact that Alice Springs was not originally commissioned as part of the series, but was a standalone book that I began writing between mid-2007 and 2009. It was commissioned as a (longer) paperback under a standalone contract in 2011 with a different title and later included within the series in early 2012 after I’d submitted the final MS. I was aware of the other books as they came out (I remember reading _Hobart_ in 2008) but I wasn’t writing with the series in mind. If the book had been commissioned as part of the series, I may well have presented a slightly different take on Alice Springs and one more ‘in conversation’ with the other books in the series. One of the reasons why the publisher included the book was because it conformed with the idea behind the series of presenting a writer’s personal journey through a city. I’m very flattered that my book was included of course — and biased — and I think that putting a book about Alice Springs in the ‘Cities’ series provides an interesting counterpoint to the other cities.

    Presenting my personal journey through Alice has gotten me into all sorts of trouble, and the view ‘on the ground’ in Alice Springs about my book seems as polarised as the reviews. It is not just the ‘born and breds’ who have taken issue with the book, but expats within Alice’s chattering classes, often those a bit older than me who had lived there for 10-20 years, who had problems with the book not reflecting their particular purchase on the place (which is my interpretation of their response, to be sure) and criticised it for presenting an unduly negative portrait of the town. I guess my take on Alice reflects a certain era–written in the shadow of the Intervention while being confronted by the shortcomings of previous governments and the self-determination era in addressing the mounting disadvantage within the Centralian region–and all the dark doubts and recriminations accompanying that period.

    If you’re interested in histories of Alice Springs, and you may well know these, two that I found most informative were Peter Donovan’s _Alice Springs: Its History and the People Who Made It_ and M C Hartwig’s PhD Thesis, _The Progress of White Settlement in the Alice Springs District and its effects upon the Aboriginal Inhabitants, 1860-94′, the latter which I devoured over several days in Alice Springs’ library’s special collection room. I recently read Jack Cross’s _Great Central State_, which I would also strongly recommend. I was a little disappointed, however, that there was not much account about the development of Central Australia, although, as he says, there’s less documentation of the frontier and pastoralism in CA than of the Top End.

    I left Alice Springs very divided about the place, and felt somewhat rattled by it. I felt I had become one of those people I mention towards the end of my book who never feels quite at home, wherever they are. My memories of Alice gave me a sense of distance and dislocation from much of urban life for a long time, and still do, especially since I travel back there regularly for work. (I’d also worked in Indigenous affairs for six years before moving to Alice, so it wasn’t as if the issues were new to me: just close-up and more intense.) Many of my contemporaries also felt rattled by Alice, both while they were there and after moving back to the Big Smoke(s). I know that Americans move around a lot within their country–perhaps even more so than Australians–to study and to work, but I wonder whether if there are certain places within the States that are accompanied by a similar sense of dislocation and destabilisation of identity for Americans who move there? (Loaded question, I know, as I probably mean ‘certain Americans’, left-liberal types like me.)

  2. Will says:

    Thanks for the further reflections and clarifications, which I find consonant and complementary to my own take on the book. I admit that my decision to set my review in the context of the Cities series was influenced by a review I read somewhere that raised the question; I thought your book did justice to Alice in a way that others in the series do to the respective cities. And it was a personal view, from someone who is quite representative of a large chunk of Alice denizens. It’s a brave and intense look at the town. As to your question about America, I’m hard pressed to answer. I grew up in metropolitan New York and have lived the rest (more than half) of my life in a left-liberal enclave in the South. When I moved there 35 years ago the great wave of homogenization had barely begun, and I did indeed feel dislocated and experienced a strange kind of culture shock. But because our society is so mobile, acclimatization was relatively easy, and would easier still today. But that’s a very limited, East Coast perspective. Thanks for responding; I’m enjoying your renewed foray into blogging and hope you continue.

    • Brad says:

      I just spent a week in the Alice and it is just like the book describes …… I spent time at the Todd tavern between 10:30 am and 2pm when the bottlo opens and its sad what goes on …. Its like an episode of The Walking Dead .

  3. Pingback: I Am Large, I Contain Multitudes | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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