2015 Eye of the Storm – Day 1
with festival guest blogger Mark MacLean
Thursday, 17 September 2015
Of all the worst ways to arrive in Alice Springs, the worstest way of all is to arrive by plane.
It banks round the McDonnell Ranges and you crane your neck to see past the other passengers’ heads to get a view through the thick lens of the round-cornered window. For a brief moment a screen-grab of nut-brown and nankeen-coloured dirt and filthy mulgas fills the plastic pane before the big bird rights itself and grumbles to a standstill on the runway. You gather yourself and your possessions and do that smile-and-nod thing as you slide past the hostesses. But then the door opens to the stairs and you’re smacked hard between the eyes by the whole nine yards that is the Red Centre at midday. Wallop.
Getting here by car or train or camel or even pushing a wheelbarrow would be better than this. The disconnect between your point of departure and the stretch of bleached tarmac leading to the terminal is too much to absorb. You feel it in your skin and you see it in the eyes of the other passengers: a vagueness of place that makes people hang close to one another or, in acts of self-affirming bravado, march with exaggerated purpose towards the luggage carousel.
Alice Springs does not pander to the visitor. It doesn’t care whether you like it or not because it knows it was here before you were even thought of and it’ll still be here long after you’ve gone: all of you.
So as you struggle with its too-bright sun and talcum grit and zero-humidity it shrugs and says, ‘Too much, princess? Stay till the end of summer and then see how you’re travelling.’ And this is where we’ve come, to this deceptively suburban outpost, on a literary mission under the working headline ‘Finding home’.
I’m interviewed on ABC Darwin and, in honour of the dreadful letter knife I made in woodwork in 1974, the full horror of which I describe in Five Boxes, they hold a ‘most piss-weak school project’ phone in.
A guy from Alyangula wins it for the bong he made in 1986, which his mother still owns and treasures. This is the Territory, mate.
At the NT Writers Centre’s temporary home I finally get to meet Sally, Dani and Fiona. The last time I was in this building, two decades ago, it sold car parts and it still has the brutal functionality of Eighties Territory architecture.
While I mill around feeling useless, Dani and Fiona and Sally take calls and make calls and rearrange missed flights and line up media for anxious poets. We eventually sit down to plunger coffee and Berliners.
It would be impossible to not be remarkable with a name like Miss Olive Pink. We gather in the botanic gardens that bear her name and I wonder what she’d think of us all. I reckon she’d give us a hard time but secretly like us.
I climb the hill that overlooks the gardens and look down on the assembled writers and poets and songbirds below.
The gardens at this time of day, late afternoon, have a dream-like tactility. The geology is so old here that the normal order is reversed: the rocks are worn to a friable softness while the plants bear the hards and sharps that allow them to thrive.
At the lookout there’s an interpretive sign that describes the Arrernte landscape of Alice Springs. It has, it goes without saying, being bashed and defaced to the point of illegibility. But through the bullet holes and the graffiti I can still make out the name Alhekealyele, Mount Gillen.
Later, Sylvia Neale reads a poem by MK Turner and Maureen O’Keefe that shuts us all up.
And then Western Sydney mob blow us all away, and local singers sing of deserts made of Persian rugs, and then we retire to the gazebo to do what writers of all types do best.
I don’t actively disbelieve in lay lines and spirit wormholes and divination which is why I’m prepared to believe any theory you like about the Totem Theatre. Was it a fluke that set it down here at this exact spot on the banks of the Todd River? I don’t think so. I love this raggedy-arsed collection of timber and tin sheets and plastic chairs that has hosted everything from Gilbert and Sullivan am-dram to, on this night, a collection of the scruffy marginalia that society – in the absence of any better descriptor – calls ‘poets’.
It’s poetry slam night and the Totem’s packed to its rickety rafters. The variety was immense. One woman read from her phone. Another from her journals. The winner was Sanya, an Alice Spring poet who, should he win at the Opera House, gets to perform at … um … Alice Springs.
And so ends Day 1.