The atmosphere in the Red Ochre Grill is distinctly chilly – not exactly what you would expect in the middle of a desert. There was an early-bird discount of 20 per cent for guests of the attached hotel, if you booked before 6pm for a table before 7pm; but we screwed up by 15 minutes and the maître d’ was emphatic: we’d have to pay full whack. Now I’ve been sitting over the remains of my kangaroo and macadamia salad for a full half-hour, waiting to pay the inflated bill, and my temperature has been plummeting the while. There’s nothing more real than this sort of tourist gouging – and Alice Springs is a tourist town, among other things. A tourist town serviced by tourists: mostly backpackers, most of whom in turn are from Britain.
Last night in Casa Nostra, a Calabrian restaurant sited on the parched banks of the Todd River (it flows about once in an average lifetime), we were served by a nice young man from Aberdeen, and the many miles between the Grey City and the Red Centre were eliminated by his opening remark: “I read something you wrote recently about Scots independence. I myself am not in favour.” Then this morning, at a café in the mall, he popped up again – working a second job, this time with his Edinburghian girlfriend, so they can gather a sufficient sum to keep on truckin’.
All down the Stuart Highway (known colloquially as “The Track”) from Darwin, we’ve been waited on by young folk from East Grinstead and Letterkenny, Dewsbury and Great Malvern. They come on working visas, not available to the nationals of countries which aren’t either historic (Britain) or contemporary (United States) overlords of Australia, and work these jobs out in the back of Bourke, where young Australians are loath to go. To the backpackers the Outback is a mythic realm suffused with wonder, presided over by an ancient people steeped in sorcery who are also wizard at graphic arts – but to most young Australians it’s too much of nothing, while their largely deracinated and welfare-dependent Aboriginal fellow citizens are a source of perplexity, shame and ignorance.
All this is running through my mind as I ask the waitress where she’s from. “Israel,” she replies. “Ah,” I say, “I didn’t know you could get a working visa for Australia on an Israeli passport.” “You can’t,” she says, “but my parents are American and I also have a US passport.” Of course it’s not this young woman’s fault in any way, but there is still something slightly nauseating about this: the Americans have a spy base outside Alice, called Pine Gap. So it is that geostrategic “considerations” and neoliberal “economics” vibrate through the rudaceous rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges as our elders sing up a nightmarish dreamtime.
“Ah, well,” I say, “you must be used to desert country, then.” “Ye-es,” the Israeli waitress bridles a little, “but Israel isn’t as desert as here.”
One of the many great things about Australia – where I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years, my first sojourn being on a working visa exactly like the waitress’s – is a genuine, if slightly abrasive egalitarianism: the original Digger mentality of mateship suffuses even the 21st-century globalised food industry, such that tipping is frowned on as shameless evidence of a de haut en bas attitude. These young folk are being paid adequately by the establishment, but that’s the problem: they have no incentive to get the tucker to the table quickly, and they aren’t trained. Thus my long wait for the undiscounted bill has become tangled up in my mind with all the world’s woes, and I snap back: “I’ll thank you not to lecture me on geography, young lady. Your state has been snaffling up deserts throughout my lifetime, beginning with the Sinai. Granted, its most recent acquisitions have been relatively piecemeal ones on the West Bank of the Jordan, and only semi-arid, but still . . .”
Later on, my eldest takes me to task for this solecism, bringing the misfortunes of the Middle East into the heart of the great southern continent, but I am unrepentant. True, the parallels aren’t exact, but both Israel/Palestine and Australia are polities that have pursued the old colonialist agenda under modern dispensations; both are states in which there’s a grotesque disparity between the conditions in which the indigenous people survive and those that the expropriating incomers enjoy. The Red Ochre Grill, with its pseudo-gourmet dishes confected out of “native” ingredients (emu, kangaroo and camel meat mostly), is a perfect instance of this phenomenon, a sort of gustatory colonialism, if you will.
Outback of the restaurant, in the sandy slough of the Todd River’s bed, the “Long Grass people” – Aboriginals bushed by the grog – stand in for benighted Palestinians. The rates of alcoholism among them are eclipsed only by those of diabetes. An old Australian friend in Darwin put it to me thus: “As you drive south to the Alice you’re travelling along a broad highway of renal failure.”
True, from time out of mind all sorts of holidays have been taken in other people’s misery. Yet there is something particularly queasy about whites working away in the well-appointed restaurant while, out in the darkness, welfare-dependent blacks are killing themselves with Coca-Cola.
Next week: On Location
This article appears in the 26 Aug 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism