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May 2016
The Songlines – Bruce Chatwin – Picador, 1987
* * *
I read this book shortly before travelling in Australia last year, and it proved a good introduction to what would otherwise have been an alien culture. Not white Australians, of course - I am very familiar with them - but the original inhabitants. As someone from a cosmopolitan metropolis, the racial divide in the Northern Territories came as quite a shock. The poorest people - shabbily dressed, waiting for public transport, queuing outside government help centres, shopping in discount stores, listlessly begging outside nightclubs - invariably had black faces. Their demeanour was reserved and resigned, as if they were prisoners. Now I know that the history of the colonisation of the New World is terrible, but even so, after so many years and some progress on native rights, why do they seem so defeated?

The answer, which I would never have begun to understand without this book, is that in a sense, they have. There is a fundamental mismatch between aboriginal and western culture which can never be reconciled. For the aboriginal way of life is a nomadic, travelling existence, and the western one is not.

The book begins in Alice Springs, that extraordinary town in the middle of thousands of miles of desert, where the author meets a man called Arkady who is mapping Aboriginal sacred sites. They arrange to visit some townships and talk to tribal elders about the Songlines, the invisible pathways across Australia sung into existence by the Dreamtime Ancestors. Before they go, they visit various colourful characters including an art gallery owner called Enid, the ex-priest Dan Flynn and the elderly Marxist Jim Hanlon. These are marvellous, vivid pen portraits which give a strong sense of the inhabitants of Outback Australia. One thing you don't get is a good idea of what Alice Springs is like - for a travel writer, Chatwin is surprisingly poor at evoking a sense of place.

The second quarter of the book continues the pen portraits, now introducing the Aboriginals themselves. Chatwin does not brush their problems under the carpet; the drunkeness of the men and the squalor of their surroundings are described, but he does so without judgement. Indeed as we learn more about Alan and Timmy and the other characters, it becomes easier to understand why they are as they are. They consider themselves managers, not owners, of the lands they walk across, and they are prevented from carrying out their responsibility to maintain the songlines by western notions of settlement, private land and mineral exploitation, which destroys the many sacred sites mentioned in the stories (those sacred sites, being both spiritual as well as geographical, are quite delicate - when I was at Uluru, we were asked not to take photos in certain locations because a photograph removes a bit of the site's sacredness). It is little wonder that, robbed of purpose and imprisoned in white people's boxes, they turn to drink.

In the second half, the story peters out and the book becomes a rag-bag of passages and quotations about the nomadic way of life, none of which really convinced me of the truth of Chatwin's thesis that constant travelling is humanity's natural state. I kept wanting him to return to the characters he had introduced earlier who would have made his case more effectively. I would guess that Chatwin himself did not manage to get any closer to them in the time that he had, which is understandable but makes the book unsatisfying as a narrative. Chatwin found, as I did, that aboriginal people interact as little as possible with white men and keep their secrets to themselves. And when their traditional way of life has been steam-rollered by an invading culture, who can blame them?

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