NO WORRIES (1996)
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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.
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.
waving at pelicans, Coorong
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.
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.
on the cliff, Darwin
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.