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Happy Sad Land
No Worries
Jack and Zena
The Craic
1900 House
Castaway

Robbie Williams
- Somebody Someday

Tribe
The Meaning of Tingo and Toujours Tingo
Going Dutch in Beijing


NO WORRIES (1996) - buy this title from Amazon.co.uk

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  buy this title from Amazon.co.uk
   
For my second book, I had come up with a list of obscure and specialised journeys to tantalise my publisher: across Greenland, the Deep South of America, etc. But no, my publisher had his own idea - Australia. 'I sent Shiva Naipaul there and he died,' he told me over a long lunch. 'I sent [Another Famous Name] there and he wrote about himself, now I'd like to try you.'

He didn't need to flatter me. I was more than happy to take up the challenge, though when I started reading up about the country, I had serious cold feet. It really did appear to be 'a land of vast, dry, empty spaces where rough, suntanned rednecks drove down dirt roads in pick-up trucks piled high with tins of amber nectar, occasionally stopping to grunt appalling, chauvinistic remarks at their bedraggled womenfolk.'

Like most visitors to Oz I was pleasantly surprised. Sydney! What a fantasy that city seemed that September: blue skies, turquoise sea, laid-back, hospitable people - what on earth was I going to write about? 'What aspict?' the Sydneysiders kept asking me, and I found it hard to answer.

But as in South Africa, the people I met dictated the route and the story. Two skinny brunettes I got chatting to at an art opening in Sydney insisted that I should go north to meet their friends in their home town of Brisbane, rather than south, as I'd planned. Once in Brisbane, I was introduced to a larger-than-life farmer who drove me to his outback cattle station in Effin' Q (Far North Queensland). He was determined that I should understand (amongst other things) his view of the Aboriginal situation, so I was passed on to a sister-in-law who lived on a station right next to a remote Aboriginal settlement in Cape York. Within six weeks I had gone far from the backpacker trail and found my central theme.

 
   
 
Aboriginal girl waving at pelicans, Coorong
   
Had I gone south and west, as I'd planned, I probably wouldn't have met any Aboriginals, and the book would have been about immigrants - or surfers. As it was, Aboriginals were everywhere in the North, and where they were, so was the white Australian guilt and worry and need - so similar to South Africa - to explain.

Getting the Aboriginal side of the story was harder. In South Africa, a white man visiting a rural township with a tape-recorder was a novelty; in Australia, the Aboriginals had been anthropologised to such an extent that they could barely meet your eye. They didn't want to answer the white man's endless questions, and would make up tall tales for a laugh.

There weren't even very many full-blooded Aboriginals left. The real 'blackfellers' existed in grim settlements way out in the desert or bush. Alcohol was an appalling problem with them, however much well-wishers tried to pretend that it wasn't. Robbed by history of their lore and function, large numbers of them were coasting along on welfare. Why bother spending days tracking down a meal of turtle, berries, or kangaroo when you can just open a free can of bully beef?

There is much that strikes an outsider as absurd about the Aboriginal situation in Australia. People who are a quarter, eighth, even a sixteenth Aboriginal often feel the need to identify more with their black roots than their white ones. I would find myself listening to campaigning 'Aboriginals' who seemed indistinguishable in accent or appearance from your average tanned Aussie. One of the Aboriginal activists I met in Tasmania had piercing blue eyes and was whiter than I am.

 
   
 
Sunset wedding on the cliff, Darwin
   
But such is (or at least was) the endemic racism in Oz, that anybody with even a hint of brown in their skin found themselves identifying with the blackfellers rather than the whites, even if they were living hi-tech lives in modern cities a million metaphorical miles away from their distant relatives in the desert.

Which is not to say that No Worries is a serious study of Aboriginal life in Australia. It isn't. Like Happy Sad Land, it's an account of the individuals I ran into - or contrived to run into - in a journey round the continent. Backpackers, jillaroos, millionaires, detained immigrants, all tell their stories or are observed at work or play. But the preoccupation with the continent's original inhabitants never went away. And the sum total of my encounters reveals honestly, I hope, what is still, deep-down, Australia's biggest worry.
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