Darwin is the only Australian capital city I’ve never visited, but whereas Peter Timms’ book In Search of Hobart in the same New South City Series made me want to pack up and move to Tassie overnight, Tess Lea’s impressionistic survey of Darwin makes me want to avoid it. I just couldn’t put up with the weather:
… Darwin is a place where the imported seasonal markers of summer, autumn, winter and spring have no meaning. Locally, people note two main seasons: ‘the Wet’, a brief but intense monsoonal deluge from January through to March; and ‘the Dry’, a long drought extending from April through to September. By December people are willing storms to break the searing heat and rising humidity that precedes the Wet. Locals call this bridge period ‘the build-up’, a reference both to the climbing humidity and temperatures, and the mounting stress of the sticky, sapping heat. Alternative names are mango madness, the silly season, even the suicide season.
It is as if the body registers as a psychic assault the lowering air pressure from thunderstorms brewing over warm water. […]
You are in a stifling sauna, not a romance novel of languid afternoons under the palms. Your brain seems to be melting and tempers flare; irritability spreads from itching skin to the whole world. Only the fish, mozzies, fleas and cattle ticks are happy, breeding faster in the steaming heat. (p. 13)
Well, of course, tourists don’t have to visit during the build-up or the monsoon. But Lea gives the impression that there are social disadvantages to Darwin too:
… for young people Darwin continues to have the attractions and the downsides of a large country town. ‘You endure the heat, you get drunk. If you stay, you can have a baby and maybe get a home loan. It’s better to get out,’ one young man told me, briefly back home for his studies ‘down south’. It can feel suffocating. (p.183)
‘It becomes very repetitive in Darwin after a while,’ she told me. ‘There’s a strong culture of drinking and drug-taking. Everyone in Darwin’s smoked weed or drunk crazy amounts of alcohol by age fifteen. It’s more expected there, more accepted.’ (p. 183)
And then there’s the cane toads and mosquitoes, urban crocodiles, and swimming pools that are unusually shallow, which means it warms up more readily in the build-up heat to a pea soup temperature, just when people are mad keen to escape the seething heat. Nothing lasts long: even the buildings corrode from within in the moist salty air, which is why it’s too expensive to protect what remains of the city’s heritage buildings.
And more importantly, from a tourist’s point-of-view, it seems that outsiders have little chance of discovering the city’s appeal. (Lea does say, in the Preface, that her book is not a tourist guide configured as a map of visitable sites). After visiting a training session for the Chinese ‘Lions’ that perform at blessing ceremonies all over Darwin, she finds the streets are empty:
… Darwin is not a town for idle pedestrians, at least not before dusk on a hot weekend afternoon. I remember squinting up at yellow and navy long-sleeved cotton shirts, the tradie’s signature uniform, as they flapped against verandah railings on high-rise apartment buildings, where tiny metal porticos provided scant shade against the blasting tropical sun. Does this town disappoint those tourists who make the mistake of walking in the city, in forlorn search of the Darwin they’ve heard is the most Asian of all Australian capital cities? Amid the great secular ugliness of the CBD they would find a car park instead of a Chinatown, for Darwin’s multiculturalism is not well packaged. Yet the lack of ethnic enclaves somehow seems fitting, Darwin’s poly-ethnic make-up is such a naturalised part of everyday life, it has no need to fabricate special districts or ornamental displays. (p.121)
‘Fabricate’ is a loaded word in that sentence. Melbourne’s Chinatown isn’t ‘fabricated’, it’s a sexed-up version of what was always there, and it plays an important part in acknowledging an ethnic group’s contribution to our heritage. (I’ve taken school groups to the museum there). But since most of Darwin was flattened by Cyclone Tracy – and before that in WW2 was the only city in Australia ever to suffer a bombing campaign – the city has had to rebuild itself, and has had to make choices about what would be rebuilt and where. Were the Chinese in Darwin so ‘naturalised’ that they didn’t build temples or industries alongside the market gardens they are famous for?
Lea’s approach to writing this book was ‘anthropological’, participating in what she describes and talking to ordinary people, not celebrities or political notables. She says in the Preface that her approach shows the Darwin people know, one that might be unfamiliar, and aspects some don’t want to know about. Her themes are disasters and reinvention, real and imagined dangers, how the place is lived, and where it might be going. But in naming her ‘omissions’ in some detail in this Preface, right at the very beginning of the book, she gives prominence to events that have made Darwin infamous – the murder of Peter Falconio and the abduction of his girlfriend Joanne Lees on its back roads in 2001, and the disgraceful treatment of Lindy Chamberlain in the Darwin judicial system. So the book begins with a harsh reminder of negative events, not really offset by a scanty allusion to Darwin’s extraordinary creative scene…
Although the book starts with the destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in 1975 (as I suppose it must, since that transformed the city like no other event), it was the chapter called ‘Dangerous Proximities’ that tells the history of Darwin from a perspective that most people might not know:
It is more conventional to begin with the voyages of Captain Cook, take in settlement along the country’s south-east, track west and inland, before eventually reaching the frontier north as the most recent event. Yet, recast from a northern perspective, Australia gains a more elaborate, sophisticated and older recorded history. For hundreds of years, there was valuable trade with trepang collectors and, with this, links with the European trading empire that centred on the so-called Spice Islands of the Indonesian and Malay archipelago. The port of Makassar was the centre of the trade, with the uniquely repulsive Australian trepang attracting the highest coin. (p.102)
Among non-Indigenous and non-Chinese Darwinites, Lea says, very few can trace their Darwin roots back to the 19th century, and the population is highly transient. But a potentially successful model of multiculturalism was dismantled and became instead a catalyst for the White Australia policy because of fears that the Chinese would overrun the north, spill across the borders and overwhelm the Australian colonies.
But what to make of the comment about compulsive judgements tacked onto the end of a paragraph about the discrimination against Aborigines in the early 20th century?
For Aborigines, it is a time of curfews and righteous religious instruction, the berated audience forced to swallow the contradictions of good Christian settlement. The authorities gave reasons for European men to fear marrying Aboriginal women and backed them with legislation. Social judgements did the work of policing too. Swift ostracism of the explicit sinner, the ‘combo’ was harsh and instinctive. The good ladies and gentlemen of Darwin deplored with a moral rectitude that stiffened their spines and tightened their lips. Their aversion was as readymade as my own prissiness when I spot a red-hued Aussie male draping his blancmange arms over a young Asian girl. It is a compulsive judgement that needs no intimate knowledge of circumstances. (p.109)
While Lea is at pains to celebrate the ethnic diversity of Darwin, and has included Aboriginal voices (e.g. about their experience of the bombing of Darwin), it’s tempting to guess where her sympathies lie in the vexed matter of access for recreational fishing. In the chapter about fishing rights, Lea reports the ruckus when Aboriginal title was extended to coastal waterways. She reports the outrage from the local fishing lobby, and quotes a racist remark from one of them. She also cites a woman called Chrissie who coordinates the annual Secret Women’s Business Barra fishing challenge. Is the name of this challenge okay with the local Indigenous women? Is it an offensive mockery of Indigenous culture, or just harmless Darwinian humour? That might depend on who’s laughing, or so it seems to me, but if there was any mention of the Indigenous perspective, or a quotation celebrating their restored title to their waterways, then I missed it. Elsewhere in this book there is respectful commentary about Aboriginal issues, but not in this one.
An academic born and raised in Darwin, Tess Lea is (according to the cover flap blurb) someone who ‘got out’ but still calls Darwin home. Perhaps that explains the unsentimental way she describes the unappealing aspects of Darwin while also conveying some pride in and affection for the place. The book is heavily researched: of 290 pages, 40 are acknowledgements and a bibliography. I’d love to read a review of it by permanent resident of Darwin!
Author: Tess Lea
Publisher: New South City Series #9, New South Publishing, 2014
Source: Kingston Library
The City Series is available from Fishpond: