Bruce Chatwin’s song to the song­lines

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - BY RICHARD COOKE

Bruce Chatwin’s song to the song­lines

“Epic of Gil­gamesh” is Google’s an­swer to “what is the old­est known lit­er­a­ture”. Un­known scribes in the city of Ur picked the poem out in cu­nei­form letters some 4500 years ago. These clay tablets pre­served an older oral tra­di­tion, but that part of the story is usu­ally left out. In­stead, the Me­sopotamian epic fits eas­ily into that car­toon­ish di­a­gram of the As­cent of Man, where civil­i­sa­tion means writ­ing, a se­quence of me­tals and a pro­ces­sion of cap­i­tals: Mem­phis, Baby­lon, Athens, Rome.

Com­pare this lin­eage to the cer­e­mo­nial songs of Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralia. Their ab­so­lute vin­tage is un­know­able, but the best es­ti­mates run to at least 12,000 years old. At this dis­tance in time, the study of lit­er­a­ture needs not just lin­guists but ge­ol­o­gists. There are song­lines that ac­cu­rately de­scribe land­scape fea­tures (like now-dis­ap­peared is­lands) from the end of the Pleis­tocene epoch. Their prove­nance may stretch even fur­ther back, all the way into the last ice age. They are also alive. The last per­son to hear Epic of Gil­gamesh de­claimed in her na­tive cul­ture died mil­len­nia ago. Song­lines that may have been born 30,000 years ago are be­ing sung right now.

Even today, most of white Aus­tralia man­ages to as­sid­u­ously ig­nore this mir­a­cle. Early an­thro­pol­o­gists, in­clud­ing those who claimed to un­der­stand Indige­nous lan­guage, in­sisted that the cer­e­monies were mean­ing­less. “The songs of this tribe [the Ar­rernte] … are merely a col­lec­tion of sounds,” wrote Fran­cis Gillen, re­flect­ing ex­pert opin­ion at the turn of the 19th cen­tury. “They have no ac­tual mean­ing, but are merely a means of ex­press­ing such mu­sic as there is

in the na­tive mind.” Even these early so­cial Dar­win­ists later re­alised they hadn’t un­der­stood ev­ery­thing, but you could still find the same willed ig­no­rance in 2014. In a leaked email, Barry Spurr, then a pro­fes­sor of po­etry at the Univer­sity of Syd­ney, com­pared them un­favourably with African-Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, “which, un­like Abo lit­er­a­ture, ac­tu­ally ex­ists and has some dis­tin­guished pro­duc­tions”. Spurr, who once helped set the na­tional cur­ricu­lum, now speaks at “tra­di­tion­al­ist” fo­rums, along­side mem­bers of the New Right.

Those few out­siders who did get close enough to the song­lines to ap­pre­ci­ate them – not an easy thing to do – were of­ten awed by their majesty. Some found the ex­pe­ri­ence al­most sham­ing, and their own cul­ture be­gan to seem cal­lous and hol­low in com­par­i­son. Les Mur­ray would say that his coun­try had been “ruled by po­etry for tens of thou­sands of years, and I mean it was ruled openly and overtly by po­etry”. Tellingly, it took not just a white au­thor­ity but an English one to show wider Aus­tralia that this po­etry was even there. A “song­line” is not the only term to de­scribe these phe­nom­ena (they are also known as dream­ing or churinga tracks). It is the most widely used, though, thanks to The Song­lines by Bruce Chatwin, pub­lished 30 years ago this year.

It is an im­per­fect book, and the fete sur­round­ing its pub­li­ca­tion has moved on, but The Song­lines did force the white world to gauge the depth of Indige­nous cul­ture. And it is partly im­per­fect be­cause Chatwin too was over­whelmed by his sub­ject. As he tried to make sense of what he had seen in Alice Springs and its sur­rounds over a to­tal of nine weeks in the early 1980s, he wrote that song­lines were on “such a colos­sal scale, in­tel­lec­tu­ally, that they make the Pyra­mids seem like sand cas­tles. But how to write about them – with­out spend­ing 20 years here?”

Scal­ing these in­tel­lec­tual mon­u­ments, even trac­ing their out­lines, is al­most im­pos­si­ble. Song­lines are not just sung po­ems. They are also le­gal doc­u­ments, ge­nealog­i­cal records, maps and the le­gends of maps, doc­u­men­ta­tions of flora and fauna, sys­tems of nav­i­ga­tion, reli­gious rites, spells, his­tory books, mem­ory palaces, and end­less other com­bi­na­tions of cer­e­mony, knowl­edge and phi­los­o­phy that can­not be read­ily anal­o­gised into an­other cul­ture. An­thro­pol­o­gists have ded­i­cated their lives to ob­tain­ing only the most pe­riph­eral glimpses of them. Some have re­sisted fur­ther in­sights, know­ing they are bought through a sys­tem of law, obli­ga­tion and initiation that is not en­tered into lightly. Com­pared to the ac­cu­mu­la­tion and ex­panse of mil­len­nia of liv­ing tra­di­tions, writ­ing it­self can seem like an al­most fu­tile ex­plana­tory tool. And Chatwin had only a few weeks.

What he did have was con­fi­dence, an un­usual sense of pur­pose, and a rep­u­ta­tion as one of the most tal­ented writ­ers of his time. An­drew Har­vey, who re­viewed The Song­lines for the New York Times in 1987, be­gan by say­ing that “nearly ev­ery writer of my gen­er­a­tion in Eng­land has wanted, at some point, to be Bruce Chatwin”. Twenty-three years later, Blake Mor­ri­son re­viewed Chatwin’s pub­lished letters by ask­ing “Does any­one read Bruce Chatwin these days?” Chatwin’s friend Mur­ray Bail, sur­vey­ing this di­min­ish­ment, says sim­ply that “time is quite ruth­less”.

Chatwin’s un­ortho­dox South Amer­i­can trav­el­ogue, In Patag­o­nia (1977), still reg­is­ters as a “back­packer bi­ble” (a de­scrip­tion Chatwin would have loathed), but his widest read­er­ship now might be thanks to Mole­sk­ine notebooks. A short ex­tract from The Song­lines is printed in each one. The fash­ion la­bel Burberry based a run­way col­lec­tion on his leg­end rather than his work – a fit­ting trib­ute for an aes­thete, but out of whack for some­one who wore socks and san­dals. (“He had a the­ory you didn’t get corns if you wore socks,” one of Chatwin’s friends told his biog­ra­pher, the nov­el­ist Nicholas Shake­speare.)

Chatwin’s ob­ses­sion with no­mads and no­madism pre­dated In Patag­o­nia, and this fix­a­tion with peo­ple per­ma­nently on the move led him to the song­lines. Partly, no­mads jus­ti­fied his own peri­patetic in­cli­na­tions. He had stud­ied ar­chae­ol­ogy be­fore de­vel­op­ing a dis­taste for med­dling with the dead, and de­cided to med­dle with the liv­ing in­stead. He had been an ex­pert at Sotheby’s, with a keen eye for fakes and a client list full of drop­pable names. Those eyes had then de­vel­oped a mys­te­ri­ous af­flic­tion – prob­a­bly psy­cho­so­matic – for which a doc­tor pre­scribed bright light. He found it in Africa and else­where, be­fore be­ing per­suaded into travel writ­ing, some­thing he did with near-in­stant suc­cess. He would de­velop the op­po­site of home­sick­ness if house­bound, and his con­stant de­sire for ex­ile seemed to suit his tal­ents for mimicry, bi­sex­u­al­ity and con­nois­seur­ship.

Song­lines were on “such a colos­sal scale, in­tel­lec­tu­ally, that they make the Pyra­mids seem like sand cas­tles”.

On his jour­neys Chatwin came to be­lieve that the no­madic in­cli­na­tion was not just a wider hu­man ten­dency; it was al­most a moral obli­ga­tion. His hunch be­came a the­ory. Agri­cul­ture had been a mis­take. Cities had fos­tered vi­o­lence, not cul­ture. He spent years try­ing to or­gan­ise these ideas into a book, The No­madic Al­ter­na­tive, but in­stead pro­duced an armada of in­dex cards and notebooks, and some still­born pages of man­u­script. The project was im­por­tant not just be­cause it was a self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion but also be­cause it would re­deem ev­ery­one else as well. Chatwin’s in­ter­est in an­thro­pol­ogy was more than am­a­teur-grade, and he would test his the­o­ries on ex­perts. Hu­mans were not nat­u­rally vi­o­lent at all, he be­lieved. They had de­vel­oped weaponry only to fend off a species of an­cient car­ni­vore (that he would call “the Beast”), and these arms had only been turned on other hu­mans be­cause of the stag­na­tion of liv­ing in farms, set­tle­ments and me­trop­o­lises. All he needed was proof.

You can sense the Promethean prom­ise he must have felt, en­coun­ter­ing the idea of the song­lines for the first time. Here lay the blue­print of the ear­li­est forms of hu­man con­scious­ness, com­ing from no­mads that, in his mind, sung the land into be­ing. It was travel lit­er­a­ture in an un­usu­ally uni­fied sense. The travel was the lit­er­a­ture, and this har­mony was hu­mane, mar­vel­lous, and ir­re­sistible to his sense of pos­ter­ity. It was also an op­por­tu­nity to col­lect some­thing, and in the process show off his easy, trans-cul­tural rap­port. In the cold light of the present, we can recog­nise these im­pulses as a form of colo­nial think­ing, es­pe­cially a Bri­tish strain of colo­nial think­ing. By 1987, this han­gover was al­ready start­ing to seem not just a bit em­bar­rass­ing but also ma­lign. How much of that im­pe­rial ra­pac­ity re­mains in The Song­lines is a live ques­tion.

Alice Springs in 1982 was a town full of the prom­ise of vi­o­lence, la­tent or other­wise. It still feels a bit punchy today, but when the 43-year-old Chatwin ar­rived this “grid of scorch­ing streets” was also lat­ticed with ten­sions. The Abo­rig­i­nal land rights move­ment was in its as­cen­dancy, and the town’s white shoe set were very un­happy about that. Indige­nous voices were as­sert­ing them­selves, and a pha­lanx of po­lit­i­cally en­gaged white Aus­tralians, some of them an­thro­pol­o­gists, were help­ing them. Per­haps for the first time, a real at­tempt at mu­tual en­gage­ment, un­der­stand­ing and ac­com­mo­da­tion was un­der­way be­tween black and white so­ci­ety. Much was be­ing staked on the ex­per­i­ment, and Chatwin was go­ing to be a part of it whether he liked it or not.

His project had the po­ten­tial to rub al­most ev­ery­one the wrong way. He was a dilet­tante fid­dling with an­thro­pol­ogy, a white pok­ing around sa­cred busi­ness, a bleed­ing heart con­sort­ing with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple and their al­lies. And, above all, he was an ef­fete Pommy with baby-blue eyes, a plummy voice and a fancy note­book. Alice was heavy on the yang, and in the rec­ol­lec­tions of those Aus­tralians who met him there is still a di­vide: men bris­tle (“ev­ery­one thought he was a tosser” was one frank as­sess­ment), while women pine.

Back then, the Todd Tav­ern was still a place where “dog­gers” (men who spent months in the bush poi­son­ing din­goes with strych­nine) would come to drink away their pay. One reg­u­lar had the habit of shoot­ing the pub phone with a pis­tol (“be­cause he hated moder­nity” one lo­cal told me), and then solemnly pay­ing for its re­place­ment when he sobered up. There was ap­par­ently never any talk of him be­ing barred or dis­armed. Today, the Todd has a de­cent wine list.

Chatwin had a pro­tec­tive ve­neer of charm, but also a cou­ple of al­lies. One was Robyn David­son, the author of Tracks. She had good con­tacts and could vouch for him. “In Alice, there have al­ways been gate­keep­ers to Abo­rig­i­nal so­ci­ety,” she says now. “At all lev­els, re­ally. Abo­rig­i­nal and white­fella. And I think Bruce, tem­per­a­men­tally, just hated that. Ac­cess­ing the in­for­ma­tion was cul­tur­ally very dif­fi­cult, pos­si­bly even more so back then. Peo­ple were very po­larised, very ide­o­log­i­cal, and Bruce blew into town for two weeks, want­ing ac­cess to ev­ery­thing.”

His other con­tact was Kath Strehlow, a liv­ing link to one of the most un­usual books ever pub­lished in Aus­tralia, and the widow of a white man who had gone fur­ther into the world of the song­lines than Chatwin ever could.

“Do you by any chance,” I asked in the old se­cond­hand book­store, “have any books about Abo­rig­i­nal cer­e­mo­nial song?” Per­haps some­where else that ques­tion would have sounded in­no­cent, but not in Alice, and the woman looked at me for a long time be­fore say­ing, “What, for 59 cents?” She had a hard, ironic tone, and a ban­dage on her arm, and right away we could both stop pre­tend­ing. We were talk­ing about TGH Strehlow’s Songs of Cen­tral Aus­tralia. I tried to make con­ver­sa­tion. “Bruce Chatwin found a copy of that book, Songs, so hard to get he had to go and see Strehlow’s wife,” I said. “She gave him a loose-leaf man­u­script. And when he ar­rived, she told him, ‘It’s a plea­sure to meet the only man in the world who’s read it.’ That’s what she said, any­way.” “Which wife? The crazy wife?” said the woman. I no­ticed a sleep­ing bag be­hind the counter. She was talk­ing about Kath Strehlow. “She wouldn’t know what she’s talk­ing about … Lots of peo­ple have read it. You’ve read it.” I had read it in Alice Springs Public Li­brary, with a li­brar­ian on sur­veil­lance the whole time. “Sorry about this,” she had said, un­lock­ing a cab­i­net. “I’m sure if you’re ac­cess­ing those books you know what the go is.” The li­brary’s other copy had gone miss­ing, and one had just sold for $36,000 at auc­tion.

Only 500 copies were ever printed, in a cus­tom font with spe­cial di­a­crit­i­cal marks for Ar­rernte pro­nun­ci­a­tion. It was an in­cred­i­ble but charged piece of schol­ar­ship, and there were ques­tions about whether it should even ex­ist. It was a slightly sin­is­ter ob­ject that had at­tracted ob­ses­sives with bad in­ten­tions.

An air of con­tra­band still hangs over Songs of Cen­tral Aus­tralia. Now, when part of a song for ini­ti­ated men is printed by mis­take in a book, the book is pulped. There aren’t many

au­then­ti­cally sacral or pro­fane ex­pe­ri­ences left in the West any­more, but a whole vol­ume of sa­cred songs, many never to be sung again, can bring the tang of trans­gres­sion to some­where as mun­dane as an auc­tion room. Some peo­ple like that kind of thing.

There is a the­ory that Chatwin re­ally wanted to, or per­haps re­ally should have, writ­ten a book about its author in­stead. Theodor Ge­orge Henry Strehlow was born at Her­manns­burg Mis­sion, 130 kilo­me­tres from Alice Springs, where his fa­ther served as the Lutheran pas­tor. Carl Strehlow was an am­a­teur an­thro­pol­o­gist who be­came more and more in­vested in the cul­ture of the lo­cal Ar­rernte peo­ple. At first he tried to stamp out totemic rites, but then al­lowed cer­e­mony to con­tinue as his cu­rios­ity in­creased. Although he didn’t at­tend these pa­gan hap­pen­ings, he did doc­u­ment them from de­scrip­tions. To the cha­grin of lo­cal whites, the mis­sion it­self be­came a de facto sanc­tu­ary for Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple flee­ing the fron­tier wars. Ted grew up speak­ing Ger­man, English and Ar­rernte, and was adopted into an Ar­rernte clan.

When Ted was 14, his fa­ther be­came ill with oedema and pleurisy, so ill he could not even lie down with­out agony. He was placed in a chair tied to a dray cart, as his fam­ily set off for help. The pas­tor died en route, cry­ing out “God doesn’t help!” His son later nov­elised the ex­pe­ri­ence in Jour­ney to Horse­shoe Bend, where the failed mercy mis­sion sat along­side clan bat­tles and set­tler mas­sacres as an­other fa­tal, god­less episode in the out­back. Like his fa­ther, TGH Strehlow had the faith of se­nior Ar­rernte men; un­like his fa­ther he wit­nessed cer­e­mony, and he be­gan the slow com­po­si­tion of one of the most fa­mous and un­usual an­thro­po­log­i­cal col­lec­tions in the world.

Over many years Strehlow filled reams of notebooks, took more than 26 kilo­me­tres of film, and was fi­nally en­trusted by the har­ried Ar­rernte law­men with their most sa­cred rites. They also gave him their churinga – en­graved stones and other totemic ob­jects – with fi­nal in­struc­tions to de­stroy them. This act was al­most equiv­a­lent to the men hand­ing over their own souls. He did not de­stroy them, and in­stead used this gift­ing to de­clare him­self an Ar­rernte law­man, one of high de­gree, and claimed own­er­ship of the spir­i­tual ma­te­rial through the au­thor­ity of tribal law. Creat­ing Songs of Cen­tral Aus­tralia might have been eas­ier for Strehlow if he had been just a cyn­i­cal thief. But con­flict be­tween cus­to­di­an­ship and the de­sire to re­veal gnawed at him. Near his death, he would say he re­gret­ted hav­ing any­thing to do with Abo­rig­i­nal spir­i­tual busi­ness.

The book was a painstak­ing ef­fort to fit the song­lines into a uni­fied the­ory of hu­man po­etry and song, link­ing them to the Old Norse sagas and epic po­ems of the Greeks. It tried to un­cover some es­sen­tial mys­tery of the hu­man heart, and its un­usu­al­ness had helped drive Chatwin to Alice Springs. He con­sid­ered Strehlow’s book as “great and lonely”. But while re-read­ing it in the Red Cen­tre, Chatwin tried to make out the ac­cent-laden Ar­rernte stan­zas of the songs them­selves, and found his mind wan­der­ing.

“My rea­son for com­ing to Aus­tralia was to try to learn for my­self, and not from other men’s books, what a Song­line was – and how it worked. Ob­vi­ously, I was not go­ing to get to the heart of the mat­ter, nor would I want to.” Even as he out­lines his mis­sion in The Song­lines, Chatwin lays out its lim­i­ta­tions. He was not in­ter­ested in watch­ing rit­u­als. He was not try­ing to clean up on sa­cred knowl­edge. He thought the con­cept that such knowl­edge en­joys a kind of copy­right, or is gov­erned by laws of trans­gres­sion and pun­ish­ment, even if held in ex­ile in the Bri­tish Mu­seum, ridicu­lous. Still, he would try not to trans­gress him­self, if he could help it.

Whether this is a re­spect­ful dis­tance or re­flects the holes in his re­search, it is dif­fi­cult to say. You would not know from read­ing The Song­lines how a song­line sounds be­cause Chatwin did not know. “I re­mem­ber press­ing him to tell me what a song­line ac­tu­ally sounded like,” Nicholas Shake­speare re­calls, “and the flicker of ex­as­per­a­tion min­gled with panic that tight­ened his face. ‘It’s a low, rather beau­ti­ful “aaah”.’”

It is not. He had never heard a cer­e­mo­nial song, not even in one of Strehlow’s record­ings.

Homage, more than de­scrip­tion, would con­vey the essence of the song­lines, and the ve­hi­cle for this homage would be fic­tion. The Song­lines was a novel, Chatwin in­sisted – he asked that it be re­moved from pres­ti­gious non­fic­tion writ­ing awards on this ba­sis – although based on real events. Fic­tion would give him the free­dom to get things wrong. In­stead of an at­tempt at the un­scal­able Abo­rig­i­nal orig­i­nals, he could com­pose his own song­line, draw­ing from his old notebooks. Here was an op­por­tu­nity to ex­or­cise his failed “no­mads” book, and ex­pound on the the­ory that they were the “crankhandle of his­tory”.

“I had a pre­sen­ti­ment that the ‘trav­el­ling’ phase of my life might be pass­ing,” he wrote. “I felt, be­fore the malaise of set­tle­ment crept over me, that I should re­open those notebooks. I should set down on pa­per a ré­sumé of the ideas, quo­ta­tions and en­coun­ters which had amused and ob­sessed me; and which I hoped would shed light on what is, for me, the ques­tion of ques­tions: the na­ture of hu­man rest­less­ness.” That “malaise” of set­tle­ment has an omi­nous qual­ity. As Chatwin com­posed the novel ev­ery­where from Siena to the Kala­hari to a Ra­jasthani fort, an­other tran­si­tion took place – his HIV se­ro­con­verted. He col­lapsed in Zurich, only days after sub­mit­ting the man­u­script. Even now, in Alice, there are those who call the ill­ness pun­ish­ment for trans­gres­sion, for tak­ing what he should not have.

In The Song­lines, Chatwin ex­plains his no­mad the­ory at chap­ter-length to his guide and in­ter­locu­tor, Arkady, who winds up look­ing out the car win­dow. (Arkady was a fic­tion­alised ver­sion of the an­thro­pol­o­gist Ana­toly Sawenko, who was not told he would be a thinly dis­guised cen­tral char­ac­ter, and spent the fol­low­ing decades be­ing pestered by back­pack­ers.) Chatwin’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into no­mads had led him to “re­ject out of hand all ar­gu­ments for the nas­ti­ness of hu­man na­ture. The idea of re­turn­ing to an ‘orig­i­nal sim­plic­ity’ was not naive or un­sci­en­tific or out of touch with re­al­ity.” He did not much test his no­mad the­ory on the “no­mads” them­selves, though. Pat Dod­son (ap­pear­ing as Fa­ther Flynn) got a taste of it, but the tra­di­tional men he en­coun­tered are shy and dis­tant pres­ences in the book. For Sawenko and oth­ers, this is The Song­lines’ cen­tral fail­ure: Chatwin had nei­ther the time nor the in­cli­na­tion to ap­proach Abo­rig­i­nal phi­los­o­phy through Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, and in­stead re­lied on white in­ter­me­di­aries. The area where the phi­los­o­phy seems most dis­torted is where it touches on obli­ga­tion. Song­lines an­chor those who sing them in place, in fam­ily, and in kin. They are a source of con­straint and root­ed­ness, not just a siren song to go walk­a­bout. But Chatwin was not look­ing for an­other well­spring of duty. He might also have dis­cov­ered that his re­demp­tive the­ory was not what it seemed.

Desert-sym­pa­thetic ar­chi­tec­ture must al­ways con­tend with the heat, and the shape of the Mu­seum of Cen­tral Aus­tralia and the Strehlow Re­search Cen­tre presages the con­flict. A big rammed-earth wall oc­cludes the en­try, like a bat­tle­ment. It is an un­usual build­ing, with an even more un­usual pur­pose.

Some clues about hu­man na­ture, from its col­lec­tion:

A glass tele­graph in­su­la­tor flaked into a cut­ting tool. An ob­ject sym­bol­is­ing ei­ther a tragic cul­ture clash or Abo­rig­i­nal adap­ta­tion and re­silience. Or both. Chatwin men­tioned in The Song­lines that the “theft” of these in­su­la­tors pro­voked mas­sacres: “to put a stop to this prac­tice, it was thought nec­es­sary to teach them a les­son”.

A tem­per­a­ture-con­trolled base­ment full of churinga. The cen­tre’s man­ager (her sis­ter ap­pears in The Song­lines) has never seen them; they are not to be viewed by women. After Strehlow failed to de­stroy them, the col­lec­tion be­came a trea­sure chest in­stead of a repos­i­tory, tus­sled over for years by state gov­ern­ments, col­lec­tors and the Strehlow fam­ily. At one point Kath Strehlow’s house in Ade­laide was raided by po­lice. She said that “one of the things bug­ging them was my friend­ship with the English writer Bruce Chatwin”. In the end the NT gov­ern­ment pur­chased the arte­facts, not to pre­serve cul­ture but to con­test land claims.

Chatwin had nei­ther the time nor the in­cli­na­tion to ap­proach Abo­rig­i­nal phi­los­o­phy through Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

Michael Lid­dle is an Alyawarre man with Ar­rernte links, and chair­man of the Strehlow Re­search Cen­tre Board. I ask him about Chatwin’s lib­er­a­tionist con­cep­tion of song­lines, and he is scep­ti­cal.

“I don’t agree with his way that peo­ple were able to move and travel free be­cause of song­lines. Peo­ple were re­spect­ful of the move­ments that were in­cor­po­rated within the song­lines. They were move­ments of pur­pose.”

He speaks of dis­ci­pline and dif­fi­culty, ad­min­is­tra­tion and obli­ga­tion. Man­age­ment and deep knowl­edge of coun­try.

“I’m not sure if it tells us the es­sen­tials of hu­man na­ture. But it tells me that Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were very in­tel­li­gent, ar­tic­u­late and strate­gic thinkers … There’s a huge com­plex struc­ture around song­lines. And their be­long­ing. It’s not just a word. It has a liv­ing pres­ence. And there’s a law that gov­erns that pur­pose.”

When Chatwin saw Sawenko’s work for the Land Coun­cil, he was wit­ness­ing the start of a new and un­easy me­di­a­tion be­tween black and white law. That at­tempted me­di­a­tion has con­tin­ued. Per­haps nowhere is it more in­tri­cate and sen­si­tive than at this in­sti­tu­tion. For years, lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, in par­tic­u­lar women, viewed the build­ing with some­thing like dread. Now its func­tion is chang­ing to more of a sa­cred store­house than an an­thro­po­log­i­cal cab­i­net of cu­riosi­ties. Shaun An­ge­les, the re­search of­fi­cer there, is as­sist­ing in this tran­si­tion.

“This is an un­usual place,” says An­ge­les. “We have these sa­cred ob­jects here, the churinga, as well as all the re­search, and they have a very im­por­tant role in Abo­rig­i­nal law and cus­tom. They’re ordered by one set of rules, and the rules are very com­pli­cated, like you’d ex­pect after thou­sands of years. But then we have a white­fella in­sti­tu­tion as well, and it’s gov­erned by all of the things you would ex­pect: an act of par­lia­ment, a board, cu­ra­tion pro­cesses, HR prac­tices. And this build­ing is both of those things at once. You can imag­ine these sys­tems speak­ing to each other gets very, very heated.”

The staff were us­ing the col­lec­tion to map the song­lines on Google Earth. It was painstak­ing, and An­ge­les showed me the re­sults so far, care­ful not to re­veal any­thing age­graded. The work was in­com­plete, but you could al­ready see it was not, as Chatwin de­scribed, “a spaghetti of Ili­ads and Odysseys, writhing this way and that”.

“Our sto­ries and song­lines pro­vide us with a char­ter for life,” says An­ge­les. “They en­cap­su­late the whole spec­trum of hu­man emo­tion and hu­man na­ture. Our el­ders are re­mark­able peo­ple – their ca­pac­ity to hold, cher­ish and trans­mit deep cul­tural knowl­edge is ab­so­lutely as­tound­ing. The men who worked with TGH Strehlow were men who re­tained these orig­i­nal sto­ries of this con­ti­nent, and they held thou­sands of verses in their heads and hearts that can now be trans­mit­ted to the younger gen­er­a­tion of Ar­rernte men – their de­scen­dants.”

There was an­other an­niver­sary in Alice, be­ing marked rather than cel­e­brated. Thirty years since The Song­lines. Ten years since the start of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory Emer­gency Re­sponse, bet­ter known as The In­ter­ven­tion. The In­ter­ven­tion was only sup­posed to last five years, but like most gov­ern­ment man­age­ment of Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions, it suf­fered mis­sion creep. Re­ports of en­demic child abuse claims had sent the army into re­mote com­mu­ni­ties. The re­ports had been overblown, and ev­ery met­ric of Abo­rig­i­nal wel­fare had de­clined since, but the pol­icy re­tained bi­par­ti­san sup­port. You could hear the word “In­ter­ven­tion” for many years with­out recog­nis­ing it had been bor­rowed from the “tough-love” school of deal­ing with ad­dicts.

These two an­niver­saries al­most seemed to sit on dif­fer­ent cal­en­dars, the In­ter­ven­tion al­most like a sin­is­ter par­ody of the non-lin­ear con­cep­tion of time ex­plored in The Song­lines.A small, dig­ni­fied can­dlelit vigil stood out­side the of­fice of Sen­a­tor Nigel Scul­lion, the fed­eral min­is­ter for Indige­nous af­fairs. (Scul­lion was up in Dar­win.) The pro­test­ers were Abo­rig­i­nal women and a few young bush-doof types, neo-no­mads.

Elaine Peck­ham, an Ar­rernte woman and founder of the Cen­tral Aus­tralian Abo­rig­i­nal Strong Women’s Al­liance, said she was there as a grand­mother. “I’d just like to ac­knowl­edge our past and present,” she said. “And I’d like to pay re­spect to our young ones, who have given us oldies the courage to do what we’re do­ing now. After ten years of liv­ing un­der the in­ter­ven­tions, they’ve been tak­ing away our ba­sic hu­man rights. Our right to have a voice and have a say over what’s hap­pen­ing today.”

After the protest there was a vol­un­tary ac­tion, to block off the street un­til the po­lice ar­rived. Once they did, the of­fi­cers would be given a mes­sage about some boys in a nearby de­ten­tion cen­tre who were about to be moved away from their fam­i­lies. The streets of Alice are wide and lazy, and there is al­ways some de­tour to take. Block­ing off the road out­side a closed li­brary at dusk did not look dis­rup­tive. But straight away a white four-wheel drive came right up to the group, un­til its bull bar touched the peo­ple and the pro­test­ers were say­ing “whoa!” In­side the car was a fam­ily, and as the peo­ple on the street re­mon­strated, the fe­male pas­sen­ger started say­ing, “We agree with you, but …”

The four-wheel drive stayed there for ten min­utes, in a pos­ture of stupid, men­ac­ing coun­ter­protest. A siren ap­proached, and then waned; an am­bu­lance, not a cop car. Fi­nally a paddy wagon pulled up, an of­fi­cer got out, walked straight past the line, and started di­rect­ing traf­fic. The protest be­came a march, chant­ing “Stop the In­ter­ven­tion!” “You must have seen a few of these,” I said to Peck­ham. “I have,” she said. “I was here in ’67 for the ref­er­en­dum. At least the cops are be­ing de­cent tonight.” A truck with a rack of roo-shoot­ing lights hooned past, the driver flash­ing an “up yours” ges­ture from the win­dow.

In The Song­lines, racism hap­pens in pubs. Black men are goaded into fight­ing with bro­ken bot­tles. A bar has a bul­let hole in the wall, a sou­venir from when the publi­can shot an Abo­rig­i­nal pa­tron dead. Chatwin lis­tens as a po­lice­man out­lines cra­nial for­ceps–type thoughts about the dif­fer­ences be­tween blacks and whites, over beers. The washouts and the phone-shoot­ings might be gone now, but as the march went past an open-fronted drink­ing hole, a guy with a ginger rat’s tail came out and start­ing chant­ing. “Staaaart the In­ter­ven­tion! Staaaaaaart the In­ter­ven­tion!”

Rat’s Tail stood next to an Abo­rig­i­nal man I recog­nised – we’d played pool ear­lier in the week. They seemed to be friends, of some sort. When I nod­ded a greet­ing, there was no re­sponse.

No one in Alice Springs seems to be­lieve The Song­lines is a work of fic­tion. Chatwin should be con­sid­ered a pi­o­neer of post­mod­ernism – Nicholas Shake­speare calls him a “pre­cur­sor of the in­ter­net” based on his abil­ity to em­bel­lish and con­nect, rather than in­vent. But some­how he has wound up with a rep­u­ta­tion as a fan­ta­sist, even a bull­shit artist. A strange fate for some­one who never claimed to be telling the truth. “Tom Ke­neally told me in 1998 that The Song­lines was one of ten books ev­ery Aus­tralian ought to read in or­der to find out about their coun­try. Would he say so now?” asks Shake­speare. “Once the in­ter­net ar­rived – al­most im­me­di­ately after his death – his job was done, as it were.” Pre­cur­sors don’t al­ways get the credit, and for now Chatwin seems stuck in a no-man’s land be­tween gen­res.

The an­thro­pol­o­gist Petronella Vaar­zon-Morel, who made up part of the com­pos­ite char­ac­ter of Mar­ian, was one of the few who didn’t ob­ject to the liberties that Chatwin took. They were not a be­trayal of their friend­ship. “He talked about writ­ing books, and the way that he did it,” she told me. “He had these lit­tle notebooks, and made notes, and his way of do­ing it was to make up char­ac­ters who were com­pos­ites of dif­fer­ent peo­ple. What would you call it – docu-fic­tion? So I never had this kind of fierce at­tach­ment to char­ac­ter, or a sense of in­sult that he hasn’t pre­sented me in a par­tic­u­lar way.”

Oth­ers were not so for­giv­ing. A whiff of mild fan­tasy, com­bined with ho­mo­pho­bia, and Chatwin’s de­nial that he had AIDS, have con­trib­uted to an aura of a tall-tale teller. He was one of the first prom­i­nent Bri­tons to die from the dis­ease, and latched on to ex­otic and spec­u­la­tive di­ag­noses, many fed to him by con­fused physi­cians. “My dear, it’s a very rare mush­room in the bone mar­row which I got from eat­ing a slice of raw Can­tonese whale,” he wrote in one let­ter. He be­came an afi­cionado of his own ill­ness, cor­rectly guess­ing that it had orig­i­nated in Africa.

There is some­thing else, though. “The days of the pon­tif ica­teur are over,” he wrote in an­other let­ter, and Chatwin’s pon­tif­i­cat­ing seems out of kil­ter with his sub­ject. It turned out to be not pos­si­ble to take the song­lines out of the sa­cred, or the Abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ence away from pol­i­tics. The kind of breezy, apo­lit­i­cal, dis­in­ter­ested knowl­edge Chatwin prized – stand­ing on the twin pil­lars of es­sen­tial free­dom and the pri­mor­dial non-ag­gres­sion of man – did not look so lib­eral in the con­text of a town built out of on­go­ing dis­pos­ses­sion.

“I think his value is that he tried to ask those ques­tions,” says Vaar­zon-Morel now. “He was ask­ing ques­tions that per­haps peo­ple hadn’t thought of them­selves. He was shin­ing a lens on some­thing that en­abled peo­ple to won­der … It was also a time in set­tler colo­nial so­ci­ety when that so­ci­ety was ques­tion­ing it­self. There was a much greater sense of po­lit­i­cal con­scious­ness, re­flex­iv­ity, of want­ing to know. Per­haps Bruce has been the vic­tim of what we’ve come to un­der­stand about our­selves since.”

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