Apr 232014
 

Tess Lea’s Darwin is an approachable cultural critique and explanation of Darwin’s history and present. Entwined in the Darwin narrative is Lea’s own cultural heritage and with it, some of the ‘frontier’ history of the Northern Territory.

Maintaining the intellectual complexity of many of her previous works, Darwin is the most accessible of her publications to date, retaining the charm of depth and pointedness which are so apparent in her more academic works but freighting theory within narratives and old fashioned yarns. To me, it seemed the first third of the book was hardest to write, in the fashion it often is when something is clearly close to your heart. But the second half opens up into an easily readable and entertaining if challenging exposition of Darwin which will inform and be of interest to both who know Darwin and those to whom it remains an unknown place.

While it claims to be focussed on Darwin since the Second World War, Lea weaves the narrative of selected histories of Darwin to give context and justification and an explanatory power for current events and issues in Darwin. Sometimes challenging, sometimes apologetic, it is an honest appraisal of Darwin’s culture and its distinctiveness on the Australian continent.

Darwin demonstrates the indelible mark that immigration and racial conflict has had on Darwin, and the sometimes paradoxical relationships between racial groups that confound intruders or other Australians coming to live in Darwin. Yet, although this a major theme that Lea extracts from the many contributors she spoke to for the work, it is perhaps not followed through as much as it could be in certain parts.

Darwin is an incredibly metropolitan city, which is surprising to a lot of visitors and those who have not visited Darwin. With this comes the physical characteristics of multiple cultures. It also dominates the politics of space in Darwin, a fact of policing and racial confrontations which is alluded to but not fully expressed. A shame given this is a part of Lea’s own academic work.

What is expressed and emphasised is the “social amnesia” and “numbed indifference” which runs as a consistent line from foundation to the present day in Darwin and the Northern Territory. Such a social and cultural phenomenon is one anecdotal reason given for the flux and constant movement of the Darwin population. Priests, nurses, teachers, doctors and others working on the frontline of social problems in Darwin are frequently cited in the local rag, the NT News, as fleeing Darwin for various reasons such as burnout. But as Darwin residents are likely to already know, this is more of a code word for combat fatigue. Those who stay learn to deal with the myriad of social problems in a number of ways, which weaves a path through the history of Darwin, as it does in Lea’s book.

Military build up is a constant point of discussion in Darwin, and is a feature in the book. The perceived necessity of the military, the history of Darwin as a military town, and the current and future decisions in relation to the military provide the sign posts for an analysis of the wider numbed indifference and social amnesia that abounds in Darwin. The inevitable cases of sexual assault and aggression are presented as a narrative for the possible future of the city, as it has marked the recent past, given the way Darwin features one of the highest sexual assault rates against women in the country. Against this, the economic case for military expansion  and reliance of the Darwin economy on the military – provide the basis of the kind of bind that so many polarising policy issues in Darwin also encounter.

The bind that Darwin faces itself – between the military and the negative consequences and the inevitability and helplessness of Darwin is almost a metaphor for how Darwin and the Northern Territory views itself: somehow fiercely independent, different, unique and set aside from the rest of Australia – yet wholly dependent on the outside for its sustenance, continuance and direction in almost all areas.

The duality of Darwin, between opposing policy options, and opposing social groups is a feature of many of the stories explored in the book. In some of these stories there are examples of mutual understandings, and truces, particularly between kids. I am left wondering if this is somehow an epithet for potential future ways forward in Darwin’s social sphere.

There is much that is missed in this book, particularly in regard to the sporting organisation of Darwin, and with it, the Northern Territory. Australian Rules Football has shaped Darwin both physically and socially. However, in this work only the socio-political aspects of AFL are brushed upon. The fact that the Esplanade – as Lea notes, Darwin’s only public space in the CBD – was once reserved for and had Football played there, is I think quite an important historic and cultural point. The entire geography and cultural history of the city is shaped by Football.

With this, the other important cultural point is the football season itself. Once played exclusively in the ‘Dry’ season in indigenous communities, football has gradually been moved to the ‘Wet’ season. Indigenous communities once only played Football in the Dry season – and some still do. As Lea does note, the change of Aussie Rules Football to the Wet season could be seen as another case of organised sport (by whitefellas) asserting power over unorganised sport (by blackfellas), and inserting a colonial sport in cricket (amongst others), in its place.

It could equally be argued that Football is one of the few sports that could be played in the Wet season, and thus, it allows other sport and recreation activities – so much loved by Territorians – to be enjoyed to their maximum extent.

Despite the various interpretations that the history of football in Darwin might elicit, it does give rise to one of the most elegant descriptions of Australian Rules Football in the Northern Territory, or anywhere as a matter of fact:

The season starts in the build-up, before the monsoon breaks, when the air is so saturated with moisture, the body’s own secretions give no relief at all. Under the football guernsey, the body glows. Tiny beads of sweat form miniature bubble-wraps on the forehead, above the lip, below the eyelashes, on the sternum, between legs and toes. […] But everyone sweats, the heat remaining the great equaliser. The game rewards agility, sprightliness, accuracy, the ability to catch a ball on the tip of a finger. It’s the guy who scrambles up the back of another, arms outstretched, snatching the ball out of air; the player who spins the ball end over end, high and long, the crowd’s breath held… it’s there.

Of course, football is just one of the many confounding elements of Darwin; one of the many paradoxes that could be interpreted multiple ways. There are decisions and actions in the social-political sphere that appear to have good intentions, but lead to unintended consequences, or look retrospectively like harsh and inappropriate decisions and actions.

Darwin largely sets aside the role of social pressures and sports as a planning instrument in shaping Darwin – rather the physical elements of tidal marshes, mosquitoes, drainage and political/ bureaucratic decisions such as military acquisition of land – are given the predominant weighting. And with this, the social distinctions are analysed through the placement of and contents of suburbs adjacent to these areas.

The physical distinctions are apparent to the keen observer in Darwin. And this exposition is one of the strengths of the book. The history of the division in social advantage and disadvantage is made apparent for the reader. What may appear to be a perfectly legitimate place for development in southern Australia, becomes a cesspool of festering disease and sickness. The battle lines are drawn, the community splits like tectonic plates that can’t be seen by the untrained observer, and Darwin is a place where nothing is as it seems – or should seem. But such is Darwin, and such is Darwin.

It is a book people should read, not just to find out about Darwin, but to think on the policy issues that are being worked out in this still-frontier town, on Australia’s behalf. Darwin, and Darwin, is good to think with.

 

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