September 2017


The crankhandle of history

By Richard Cooke
Image of Alice Springs

Alice Springs. Photo by LouLou Han

Thirty years on, what should we make of 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 pre-dated 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.

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.

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 age-graded. 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 pontificateur 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.”

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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