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Bleak tunnel vision in new book on Alice Springs

Alice Springs
Eleanor Hogan
NewSouth Publishing, 325 pp.
With her book Alice Springs, author Eleanor Hogan sets out to write an account that moves beyond “the polarities of political debate and media perceptions of Alice Springs”. This is stated at page 38, when I was already beginning to have my doubts. At the end of reading the further 261 pages, in a handsomely produced small format hardcover, these are confirmed. She has focused almost entirely on one pole, the bleak one, of a town all but overwhelmed by Aboriginal tragedy and dysfunction, and deeply divided along race lines. Tell me if I’m wrong, but that is the dominant media perception of Alice Springs, and for all her efforts, Hogan has just added to it, in spades.
I’m surprised. I remember hearing her read at writers’ events when she lived in town. Her pieces were almost always witty, with a sharp eye for people’s foibles, and they were strongly located in the life of the town as she experienced it. She could be acerbic, but humour seemed to be part of her take on the world. This book markedly lacks humour (despite the claims of the blurb).
It also lacks heart. A phrase from its early pages sticks in my mind. Hogan is describing Todd Mall: there are the tourists “identifiable by their strong walking shoes and hats with flyveils” (a cliché in itself), and there are Aboriginal people, drifting past in knots “like shoals of disconsolate fish”.  There’s something coldly objectifying about this image and it’s never counter-balanced by something else.
Of course I, like anyone who has spent time around town, have seen individuals and groups of Aboriginal people who look sad, sick, inebriated, and others who look and sound angry, sometimes threatening. I also have often seen groups of Aboriginal people, men and women, stopping in the mall or the streets of the CBD, clearly pleased to have run into one another or – believe it or not – into their non-Aboriginal friends and acquaintances, talking and laughing, with babies passed from one person to the next to be showered with affection. Not to mention the groups of high-spirited children, or the youths with their fresh white shin-high socks, bright t-shirts and baseball caps, or the laughing girls, with their languid movements, plucked eyebrows and hair, sometimes with blond or coloured streaks, combed tightly back into a knot or ponytail.
There is a group of girls described in the book’s early pages: “They have huge brown eyes, wide smiles and long, slender limbs. Although dressed in grubby sportswear topped off with rough-edged, home-styled haircuts, they possess a lanky model like quality.”  But Hogan (pictured at right) is immediately worrying for them, quoting from her own journal at the time – will they end up pregnant, or infertile from STDs or victims of family violence? Her worry is confirmed. Within three months the eldest of them is dead. This was J. Ryan, who died in January 2006, having been assaulted and raped by other young Aboriginal people and left for dead by the side of Grevillea Drive.
There is no denying the profound tragedy of this death and there are no doubt lessons to be drawn from it. However, apart from it confirming her generalised worry for the fate of girls in Alice Springs, Hogan’s account is mainly to make a point about white, middle-class residents having become inured to Aboriginal violence and suffering, an illustration of the “almost unspoken stand-off … between the black and white populations of Alice Springs”.
Almost all her material is mustered around these themes. Chapter Two on “The Gap”, for example, quickly becomes a discussion of Aboriginal drinking and the efforts to curb it. In so doing it offers a vignette of her attempt to talk to people who appear to be waiting “for cashed-up friends and family members to come out of the bottle shop with grog”. She mines her awkward conversation with them for all it’s worth, but it still doesn’t amount to much and I wonder why she’s included it. Perhaps it’s there to show some kind of effort to contact those “dark figures” drifting at the edge of her vision at all times. There’s plenty of talk about them, precious little with them.
She makes another attempt in Chapter Three when, despite feeling sick, she agrees to give an old Aboriginal woman a lift. This turns into a protracted and alienating experience. Hogan ends the account on a note of distaste from which she retreats into her own domestic realm.
The only encounter with an Aboriginal person where there’s a glimmer of warmth (as opposed to bucketloads of concern and preoccupation) comes later, when she meets the artist Marlene Rubunjta at the Larapinta Valley Learning Centre. Rubuntja touches her on the shoulder and Hogan feels liked. In the context of the book, it’s like the second shoe dropping, the human connection we’ve been waiting for that would give reason to all this spiritless enquiry. It doesn’t happen until page 260.
There are a few other Aboriginal voices, from interview material, the predominant one being Darryl Pearce. I can understand the appeal; on a good day he could be pithy and incisive. However the events that led to his sacking from the enterprise arm of the native title body, Lhere Artepe, and his subsequent departure from Lhere Artepe itself, put a different complexion on the comments she records, especially when they concern the purchase of the three IGA supermarkets. Rather than try to deal with that complexity, Hogan dismisses it as sounding like “the not uncommon story of an Aboriginal organization struggling to manage the competing demands of different family groups” and, as she somewhat patronisingly puts it, “running economic enterprises within western structures”.
Hogan’s interview base generally is narrow, almost all of them, like herself, from within the social justice sector. The only non-Aboriginal voice, other than those offering analytical commentary, is that of a motel manager, tending towards – you guessed it – racist views and practices. Her interviewees are not without their insights, of course, and nor is she, but this is well-trodden ground, worn to the bedrock by the end of the book.
The opportunities Hogan gives herself to break out of this framework are not taken. She attends the Beanie Festival at which a tenuous connection allows her to revert to the material of a previous chapter, in which a trio of Aboriginal sisters from Tennant Creek – lives mired in alcohol and violence – have come before the Supreme Court, one as the victim, two as the accused. She goes to the annual Pintupi show by Papunya Tula Artists and is soon discussing carpetbaggers and sweatshops. She hangs a chapter about sport on a local AFL grand final, but the discussion is all about racial divide and conflict on the one hand, and the potential for sport to do some social engineering on the other. She uses charming descriptions of the seasons in Arrernte as epigraphs on chapters that start with seasonal weather changes yet does not introduce us to their author, Veronica Dobson, nor reflect at all on the manifestations of Arrernte as a living language within the social and cultural life of Alice Springs. Even the chapter about white women, which cries out for Hogan to step in from the sidelines, withers under her jaundiced gaze: she speaks of the “sexual prospects for do-gooding, middle-class white women”; of “litters of children … deposited with successive women” by one man; the “eighties trucking dyke aesthetic” that has hold of the lesbian population; the allure for women of the landscape “because of the presence of so many circular and rounded shapes”; of the “‘Olive Pinkers’, following in the tracks of a patron saint”.  Her allusions to the “lively cultural and sporting communities to join”, to the sense of “possibility” that decided her to make a life here for a number of years are not followed up.
This book is one of a series on Australian cities, published by NewSouth (University of NSW Press). All the other titles are focussed on the seaboard capitals, authored by some of the best-known names in Australian writing. Hogan’s Alice Springs will gain prestige as a result but sadly, it will be unwarranted. Overall, she by-passes her subject. For all her investment in detailed physical description, the town Alice Springs does not come to life. It’s there as a husk, crumbling under the weight of depressing statistics and policy failures, of rumination on “Indigenous policy” (her professional background), of lamentation over Aboriginal suffering. The “snatches of hope” she identifies are paltry indeed, found in a few statistics and programs. The dust jacket blurb portentously promises that this “red, calloused earth … is where the real world ends” – ironically pointing precisely to the book’s failure. The “real world” is apparently elsewhere, the places where “expatriates” (Hogan’s term for people like her) go back to; by this book’s reckoning Alice Springs is just a basket case.
Above: The book cover – Alice Springs? No, it’s Roma Gorge in the West MacDonnells (photo by Ryan Tews.)
UPDATED, 4 November, 2012, 3.37pm:
The View from Here
Well-known Alice Springs lawyer RUSSELL GOLDFLAM (at right) launched Hogan’s Alice Springs at Talapi Gallery in Alice’s Todd Mall on September 27, 2012. Below are his speech notes, offering a quite different assessment of the book.
As it happens, this isn’t the first book I’ve helped launch about Alice Springs in this delightful gallery space.  The last one was Rod Moss’s The Hard Light of Day, a book which was widely praised for unflinchingly telling a no-holds-barred story of the troubled and tragic trajectory of the members of a local family.  And as it happens, the book we’re here this evening to launch, Eleanor Hogan’s Alice Springs, is also unflinching, and also contains stories of trouble and tragedy – but it is a completely different book.
Moss’s account was unique and extraordinary, because he did something very very few non-Aboriginal people who have come to live in Alice Springs have ever done: he became intimately and profoundly connected with a group of town campers, and documented his adventures with them over an extended period.
Eleanor Hogan’s experience, and her account of it, are much more ordinary and familiar, and for that reason, in a sense more authentically representative:  a smart and sympathetic visitor arrives, settles in, gets in turn intrigued, astounded, horrified, confused, engaged, gob-smacked, alienated and beguiled by life in Alice, makes a home for herself, gets down to work, and, then, after a few years, pulls up stakes and leaves.  That’s what happens to most of us who come here.  We don’t get adopted by and tangled up with a family of traditional owners.  We are fascinated by Aboriginal culture, but we are careful not to intrude, and we soon discover that living in suburban Alice Springs is not at all like being a participant-observer documentary-maker on location in some exotic tribal village.  What we get are glimpses, and intimations, and clues.  But insights and epiphanies are elusive and, well, not the stuff of everyday life.  Indeed, it’s all a bit discomforting, and it’s often more than a bit awkward.
And so Eleanor has compiled Alice Springs: part field guide, part journal, part almanac, distilled from a blend of personal vignettes and carefully collated facts.  She has a squiz at Alice though her own cool eye, and she also talks at length to friends, colleagues, community leaders, elders and, on occasion, men and women she just happens to come across, so there are many voices and viewpoints jostling for attention here.  I was one of the people Eleanor interviewed when writing this book, and it is a bit disconcerting, but also in a way reassuring, to see one’s own half-forgotten words swimming up to the surface of the page.  Indeed, the Alice Springs Eleanor Hogan depicts is very much the Alice Springs I live in:  she spends a lot of time down at the criminal courts, where I work, and she spends a lot of time chewing over the messy and unpalatable business of how come our courts are so full of their daily misery, which is what I chew over too.  If you work in the area of human service delivery in Alice Springs, you’ll find this book takes you through the landscape of your own life.
But that doesn’t mean that Alice Springs has been published with us, or at least primarily with us, in mind.  It’s part of a series on Australian cities – so far, all the State capitals (except, curiously, Perth) have been covered – designed, I think, as an annotated atlas of metropolitan Australia, primarily for armchair travellers. So it’s not just for the people who live here, but for the sort of people who might think about living here, or the sort of people who come up for a holiday and a look around, or the sort of people who might think about doing so, one day.  Because, let’s face it, there are far more Australians who have a picture of Alice Springs in their head than any actual Alice Springs dust in their pockets.
So writing a book like this is freighted with responsibility:  the responsibility not to mislead would-be visitors about what they’re in for, and the responsibility to do justice to all those jostling, jousting voices and viewpoints.  Oh, and it’s got to be a good read, and it has to fit the series format, and it’s important not to offend anyone, and, oh yes, keep it edgy but accessible, and funny but serious, and smart but not smart-ass, and don’t lose the all-important narrative thread, and don’t forget, dialogue: dialogue is what keeps it real, and Eleanor, always remember, this is your book, so tell your story in your voice.  It’s a mystery to me that anyone would actually start a book like this, and a miracle that anyone would actually finish it.  But she has, and here it is.
I was a big fan of Eleanor’s now sadly discontinued 1000 post Alice Springs blog, The View From Elsewhere, the only blog, I have to confess that I’ve ever followed.  El’s Elsewhere was sometime sly, sometimes shy, always wry.  It was set in Alice Springs, but what marked it out as special, is that it was about Eleanor, and perhaps, I don’t know, you’d have to ask her, perhaps it was for Eleanor.  But although there’s a lot of “Elsewhere” in “Alice Springs”, this book isn’t about Eleanor (although El is there, hovering, occasionally putting in an appearance). It’s about Alice Springs. And it isn’t for Eleanor, it’s for us, and also for them, all those people elsewhere with some half-baked idea or other of Alice Springs knocking around in their heads.  This isn’t The View from Elsewhere.  This is The View from Here.  It doesn’t mislead, it does do the warring voices justice, it is respectful, but doesn’t shy away from Alice’s sharp edges, it’s an accessibly good read, it’s funny and serious, it’s smart but not smart-ass, and yes, there’s real dialogue for good measure.  And as well, it’s in the voice of El.
Which is why I have great pleasure in declaring the pages of this book, open.


  1. The continuing community agony for Alice is that our story is always being told by blow-ins with an agenda of one kind or another. It’s time our story was told by some author who loves and understands Alice and all her foibles, the vast richness, the expanse of the surrounding country which brings its own brand of extremes in toughness, colour and beauty that observers with eyes and minds open see reflected in the human lives that make their home here.”Sure there is ugly”, but always softened by astounding beauty. Time you wrote the Story of Alice, Kieran, can’t think of anyone with a better grasp, a better handle on our story. Louis Armstrong’s ” What a Wonderful World” just come on the radio. Sort of sums us up I reckon.

  2. An e-mail feed I get from Inside Story recently reviewed this book.
    I was struck at the time by how much it sounded like an almost perfect impression of Alice from someone coming from “down south”.
    This review does nothing to change that.
    I wonder if Ms Hogan still lives here. Or has she packed up her kit bag and retreated from this “red, calloused earth” (!) to find solace in those coastal cities the poet A.D. Hope apparently once described as “five teeming sores.”?
    Hey, please! It’s just not that bleak.
    [EDInside Story previewed the book with an excerpt.]

  3. People see only what they’re looking for and what they understand, what they are prepared to see,and not necessarily what lies in front of them.
    One must keep in mind that the world reflects what we need to see, not only what we want to see.

  4. Excellent review, trouble is I feel like I’m going to have to buy and read the book to see how unbalanced the book really is and how balanced the review really is, a real conundrum! I think Steve Brown is right Kieran, time you wrote the Story of Alice and I genuinely mean that.

  5. Laughable for Steve Brown to refer to our community agony as having our story told by ‘blow-ins’… as a born and bred Centralian he does a good job himself of running the place down. Enormous mote in his eye. Quite a few blow-ins just been appointed Ministers in the new government, they have done their fair share of running the place down, will be interesting to see how they go now.

  6. @1 That you would seek me out in such a benign place as a book review simply to vent your spleen in my direction, Ian, fills me with absolute delight! Politics is all about having the right enemies and knowing that you are more than likely one of them gives me great confidence that I am, and have been all along “on the right track”. As they say in the vernacular Ian “have a look at the scoreboard”! The people have spoken, judgement has been made! [You are a] a person who not only stood by and allowed the destruction rained on our community, but shouted from the rooftops “There is nothing wrong”, “Your talking down the Town”. The community has passed its judgement and you and your argument came out on the wrong side of it. Just a little advice, it might be time to sit and reflect a little on how Labor got it so terribly wrong, put the barbs away for a while until there’s something worth saying.

  7. Steve Brown @ Sept 5 comments that “politics is all about having the right enemies.” Enemies is not the word that I would use in a debate, such as we enjoy under democratic principles, but Steve has remained consistent in his pugnacious approach towards those who disagree with his arguments and that is what I have come to expect.
    Being “on the right track”, he joins a long list of adventurers, e.g. Alexander the Great, Napoleon, etc. both of whom were absolutely certain that they were.
    Just because “the people have spoken” doesn’t necessarily mean that their selective judgement should be correct or even wise, especially if politics is about having the right enemies. I think we can see this in action by the immediate dismantling of the Banned Drinkers Register (DR).
    As for Steve Brown’s much used jive about “shouting from the rooftops”, the town hears him, but in terms of the health of the town, “the people” appeared somewhat deaf to the police and health professionals’ warning about alcohol management.
    Under the CL, the NT now has a new lead on the rest of Australia. Alcohol management costs will increase from $642m p.a. to an estimated $750m ($300,000 per annum for each of the 2500 people currently on the BDR, as a residential, secure rehab prison inmate) and at a time of declining tax revenues, not that the alcohol industry is concerned. This does not include the construction of the facility.
    It’s going to be interesting to watch how Mr Mills attempts to make it work, but then Steve Brown has spoken, so it must be right.

  8. I suppose that any discussion of The Alice’s problems invariably draws in political angles, but this would seem a strange forum for it. Anyone who says that Government has not failed Central Australia and its people is a fool or a liar. And as saddening as it may be for those of us born and raised in the town, or those choosing to now make it their home to admit – the town really IS a basket case. The “snatches of hope” may be paltry in their identification throughout the book, but that would be because there is so few of them to identify. Many years of bad government in all areas – policing, health, education, housing, tourism – have culminated in a situation where levels of unease and agitation amongst both indigenous and non-indigenous residents, levels of crime and outright fear are palpably high. And there will be no quick fix to this! Personally I don’t believe Alice will EVER again be the pleasant and relatively safe town that I knew in my youth. Which is why my family, amongst the droves of others who are leaving, won’t ever be back.

  9. “It’s very, very confronting.”
    These words appear in the book.
    These words were also said by someone from Melbourne who recently visited Alice Springs.
    Ms Hogan writes:
    “But weariness set in that I found difficult to shake and I feared my outlook on life was becoming unduly negative.”
    I think that we should acknowledge that the bleakness can be seen as a function of the weariness.
    One of things I miss is the weekly physical receipt of your newspaper. Somehow the web edition is simply not the same.
    Or, perhaps it is simply that there is a certain weariness attached to reading the predictable correspondence which is a testament to what might be seen as the intractability of things.
    Listening to the national anthem being sung in multiple languages at Araluen on Saturday I wondered how we might protect ourselves against this weariness.
    Well, we do.
    We wake up in the morning (thankfully slightly warmer mornings) and go on.
    The search for solutions lies in the search.
    There is bleakness.
    There is wonder.
    Let us abandon thoughts of weariness and negativity.

  10. @ Travis Bransgrove Posted September 8, 2012 at 7:25 pm
    Lamenting (in his opinion) that Alice Springs has become a basket case, he says and I quote: “Which is why my family amongst others and droves of others who are leaving, won’t ever be back.”
    Social worker and left wing author but not a lesbian, Eleanor Hogan has just published quite a readable little hardback of 309 pages which explores in detail, the issue of summertime crime in Alice Springs in post NT intervention times.
    In her attempts to ascertain if summertime crime is getting worse she asks John Adams, coordinator of the youth hub, for his views.
    He states that it is a moveable feast whatever that really means.
    We know that when a government allows kids to run amok then it is not long before kids have total control of the town. The children know the difference between right and wrong but from their point of view, especially at Xmas, the fun and excitement is too great a temptation to knock back.
    John Adams says on page 293 of this little book titled Alice Springs: “Why do people expect kids living in fourth world conditions to behave perfectly?” The question is a fair enough one and deserves deeper exploration by one far more politically literate than I.
    For most of us who come to live our lives in the Alice, (and NOT trying to make big money), and to have our children, leaving is not an option. When that perfect storm arrives the undreamable does become an option and then reality. May I say that love of Central Australia for most, does remain intact, if a little burned along the way.
    D.R. Chewings
    aka THE lone dingo

  11. Great review Kieran. I bought the book, keen to support emerging authors and books on Alice Springs. I read the first chapter then returned the book unharmed and got my money back. Glad to hear from your review that my summation from reading the first chapter was an accurate reflection of the whole thing. And sorry to hear that as well. Many excellent comments above. It’s awful to think that book will be put up there with the writings of prominent authors and our town will be presented in that simple little two dimensional way, yet again.
    Alice, as we know, is fascinating, beautiful and complex as well as trying. At least some of the troubles we do have are only what the rest of the country managed to avoid by getting in earlier and doing a more complete job of colonisation. I’m off to register for the Master’s Games. I’ll probably see 20 or 30 assorted people I know and like along the way, tonight I will dance with them and tomorrow I will play netball with them. It is all about what we choose to focus on and how we choose to interpret that, put so well by Evelyne above.


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