In one of those strange synchronicities, I attended an event, a few hours after finishing Neil H Atkinson’s The last wild west, that gave me the perfect opening for my post. This event was the launch of the VR film, Carriberrie, at the National Film and Sound Archive. Speaking at the launch, indigenous woman and participant in the production, Delta Kay, referred to being approached by the non-indigenous filmmaker Dominic Allen about making the film. Most non-indigenous people, she said, come to their community and “want, want, want” but Allen was offering to “give”, in a spirit of true reconciliation. This spirit of “giving” to indigenous people was as far from Atkinson’s experience as you could get.
Atkinson’s memoir –The last wild west: A saga of Northern Territory cattle stations, racial violence, wild horses and the supernatural: A true story – chronicles the time, 1977-1980, he spent working at a Northern Territory cattle station. He went there in a state of disillusionment and despair, having been refused shared custody of his children after his divorce. His aim was to transform himself, to become a man the judge would see as stable and reliable, to become, in other words, a person “like other people, who were trusted and respected”. He did transform himself, but not quite in the way he’d expected. He had felt that in the Northern Territory he could work hard and prove himself a man. In no way did he think that he would become involved in brutal racial conflict and that the “manhood” he sought would encompass a new understanding of humanity.
I’ve read novels about white brutality towards indigenous people in Australia – such as Thea Astley’s A kindness cup – and I’ve read histories and other nonfiction books, like Chloe Hooper’s The tall man, which tell this story. However, I haven’t read a memoir this charged on the subject. The physical and psychological brutality conveyed here is truly confronting – and what makes it worse is that, much as we’d prefer it be otherwise, it’s not surprising or unbelievable.
But, why write it now? Atkinson’s experience happened 40 years ago, and progress has surely been made (as suggested by projects like Carriberrie.) Atkinson answers this in his Introduction:
I wanted to hold up a mirror; otherwise it is too easy for people to say: “That was then, and our society isn’t like that anymore.” I wanted to ask if things had changed as much as people thought they had.
This is a question for each reader to consider. I would certainly hope that the sort of brutality described in this book is no more, but I really can’t be sure. However, I do know – we all know – that we still have a long way to go before true equality is achieved. For that reason – because we all know about slippery slopes – Atkinson’s book is relevant, and worth reading.
“an alien in his own homeland”
And now, I’d better give you some sense of what Atkinson’s experience was. Self-described as timid and insecure, Atkinson, with no cattle station experience, decides that the Northern Territory is the place to remake himself. Serendipitously, while en route, he meets two truckies who give him the names of a pub, of a man who visits that pub and of the station he works for. They advise him not to admit his lack of experience but to “wing it”. They also tell him that “blacks are treated worse ‘n shit”, that they “should get more credit and be paid more”, and, most critically, that “there’s a hell’va lot of bad blood between whites and blacks right now.” This was post-Wave Hill, a landmark for indigenous land rights that heralded a time of change in the outback. White owners and bosses felt threatened, and, while the tide might have been changing, indigenous people were still deemed inferior and had little or no power.
Atkinson’s story is one of being caught between these two worlds. While he starts off having little regard for indigenous people and their rights, early describing himself as having “little sympathy for the blacks”, he is a sensitive person. He soon experiences the brutal machismo of the men in charge – to greenhorn men like himself, to the indigenous workers and their families, and to the cattle. Indeed, his descriptions of the treatment of the cattle by the station workers and managers conveys such barbarity that you are prepared for anything.
To write this memoir, Atkinson draws from the diaries he kept at the time, in which he recorded experiences “as they occurred, the same day or shortly after, and using as far as practical, people’s own words”. The result is that the dialogue and descriptions feel fresh and authentic. He is a good story-teller, telling his story chronologically, and building up slowly to the event which – well, I won’t spoil it. He shares this journey with an almost ego-less honesty, admitting that, even two-thirds of the way through his time in the Territory, even after seeing much brutality, he was still thinking “It was an Aboriginal problem, not mine.” His intellect, his historical understanding, in other words, lagged behind his humanity. Emotionally, he started aligning himself increasingly with the indigenous workers, but he continued to do his darndest to avoid becoming involved in the conflict, to avoid even recognising that the indigenous people’s struggles for voice, dignity, and land, was an “Australian” problem not just an “Aboriginal” one. This attitude is, to a degree, understandable, given the power and control wielded by the white station foreman and his henchmen.
Atkinson’s writing is highly evocative. Initially, I found it almost over-blown – too many adjectives I was thinking. But, as I got into the story, I became mesmerised by his voice, by his way of imbuing feeling into what he was seeing and experiencing. This is not the spare writing of modern writers – but it feels right for Atkinson. Certainly, it conveys an inner response to the situation he found himself in:
Dawn knocked with such blinding clarity, its beams should have scarred the door and windows with clutching fingers of blazing red and yellow, as if I should just hurry over and embrace the new day because of its arrogant promise of purity and renewal.
[and, on Sno, his indigenous co-worker]
I then watched him walk away, a black man with a black shadow cast over the baked red earth of a past filled with pain.
Now, I’ve discussed here many times that issue concerning white people telling black stories. This is not, ostensibly, a problem here, because this is Atkinson’s memoir of his experience. It involves sharing his understanding of indigenous people’s culture, particularly of their attitude to place (“country” is not used here – was not used, I think, so much back in the 1970s) and of their spirituality. Mostly, he quotes their words to him, or his interpretation of their words. It can be a fine line.
As I often say in my posts, there is so much more to this book, so many issues and ideas that I haven’t touched upon, but I’m going to close with two ideas Atkinson discusses in the book, ideas which get to the nub of why this book is worth reading. One concerns his understanding of the history wars:
Such wars are as much about morality as about facts, because we choose the way we frame the national drama: either to regard the dispossession of the people as an injustice that needs addressing, or not. There is no neutral body of facts to which to appeal to answer the basic question. We all have to answer for ourselves. Every Australian has to exercise historical judgement. (p. 149)
And the other, in a sense, frames this:
Most ignorance is ignorance you choose. We don’t know because we don’t want to know. Our will decides how and upon what subjects we use our intelligence, direct our interest. Those who don’t detect any meaning in the Aboriginal world generally do so because, for one reason or another, it suits their opinion that the black world should be meaningless, so it is. (p. 194)
I don’t usually like to use book review clichés, but The last wild west is, I must say, provocative in the best meaning of the word.
Neil H. Atkinson
The last wild west: A saga of Northern Territory cattle stations, racial violence, wild horses and the supernatural: A true story
Melbourne: Hybrid Publishers
(Review copy courtesy Hybrid Publishers)