Genesis: Turn on a Light
During the launch of Turn on a Light, I outlined the genesis of the story. Several people requested me I put the story on the website. Here it is, using overheads from the presentation on Monday night that show the country and other historical images. Aboriginal people should be aware that two photos will contain images of deceased people.
The story was seeded during a conversation I had in the community of Ltyentye Apurte, 80 kms south-east of Alice Springs. The name in Eastern Arrernte language means “clump of beefwood trees”. Until 1975, the community was known as Santa Teresa Mission, and the signs near Alice Springs airport which direct people along the rugged Binns Track to the community still have that name.
My son Paul and I undertook research work in Ltyentye Apurte in late 2005 and early 2006. The country always appeared very harsh and forbidding to two kardiya blokes although we acknowledge that to the local people it was home and they loved it. On entering the community, our attention was immediately drawn to a magnificent, white Catholic church, backing up to to a steep mesa, three hundred metres on an upward-sloping bitumen road.
I always expected to see John Wayne, wearing leather chaps, spurs jangling and six-guns drawn, emerge and come down the slope.
We met with the then chair of the Community Council to interview her. When we’d finished, we chatted with her about the history of the community, finding out that from 1943 to 1952, it had been situated 100 kms due north at a place called Arltunga. At that stage, Arltunga was new to me: I’d never heard of it. But I asked the old lady why the community was only there for nine years before shifting to this site. Her answer was soft and seemed guarded.
“Little kids been sick,” she told me, “so Catholics bring us here: good water.”
She said no more. Even though I tried a couple more questions, she wouldn’t add anything. It may have been how Aboriginal people often operate when speaking English as a second language. But it may have been something else. I don’t know. Anyway, her words really interested me. I’ve found over the years working with Aboriginal people that their short phrases carry a wealth of meaning: for example, Noongar people speak of “cold time” in their oral history. After considerable research into meteorological records on Western Australia and checking the stories with Noongar people, I discovered they are speaking of an era perhaps 10 000 years ago, when snow and below freezing temperatures in our south-west winters were very common. I have dealt with this issue in greater detail under the heading SHORT STORIES in this website and the title of WHAT IS TRUTH.
So, I took her words as being a factual description of something in the history of East Arrernte people in Arltunga. Over the remainder of the year, I researched Arltunga, Santa Teresa and the role of the Catholics with East Arrernte people. I learned that Arltunga was an old gold-mining site, about 100 kms east of Alice Springs. It operated from about 1886 to 1916, non-Aboriginal people apparently surviving because of wells having been sunk to provide water. Arltunga had the trappings of a town including a couple of shops, a number of alcohol outlets, a police station and a gold-battery. The picture to the right shows the approximate location, in East Arrernte country, as well as several historical photos from the time, including the gold-battery at the top of a hill.
Then I discovered that during the 1930s and the Great Depression, East Arrernte people were being evicted from cattle stations and the only place they could go was Alice Springs. So the Roman Catholics started Little Flower Mission in Alice Springs in 1935, and then moved to Charles Creek to provide for them in 1937. But in 1943, an Aboriginal girl came down with meningitis. By then, Alice Springs was a staging post for Australian troops moving north to face a potential Japanese invasion. The senior officers of the armed forces, whether because of the meningitis, or to prevent troops fraternising with the Aboriginal people, or both, ordered the East Arrernte people out of town and sent them to Arltunga. The Catholics, naturally, went with them.
The mission operated at Arltunga until 1952, when the Catholics moved everyone to Santa Teresa. A website I found when researching the story in 2006 suggested that infant mortality rates had spiked considerably during the nine years in Arltunga due to impure water. That information made sense in terms of the old lady’s story about sick children and why the Catholics moved the people south to the new location.
So, the idea of writing a novel based on the experiences of the East Arrernte people at Arltunga and Santa Teresa began to form. I took the idea of Aboriginal people being sent to a deserted gold-mining town where a high infant mortality rate developed. I set the novel in the 1970s in Western Australia, in and around a large gold-mining centre 600 kilometres east of Perth named Kalgoorlie-Boulder. It has a rich history, large population, and was (and is) a regional centre with many bureaucratic organisations. These, which include the Catholic Church, all tend to be, or to become, inflexible.
I created a fictional town called Plantagenet, which I positioned north-west of Kalgoolie near Ora Banda, where the Aboriginal community was sent. I chose the 1970s because it was a decade of substantial change in attitudes and behaviours on a global scale, and in Australia, it followed the 1967 Referendum on the control of Aboriginal Affairs. Aspects of the changes are woven into the novel, as are the elements of conflict, power and control and romance.
Unfortunately I never recorded the website information on Arltunga and Santa Teresa, more’s the pity. When I went looking again at the same websites in 2011, the information had been removed. I don’t know who removed it or why, and at first I wondered if I should release the story. But then I found a document in 2015 from the National Archives which suggested there was probably accuracy to the old lady’s story. The document told of the old wells at Arltunga having fallen into disrepair after the gold-mining and gold-battery ceased in 1916. The disrepair to the wells was caused partly by age, and partly by damage from flood-waters from massive occasional storms pouring water into the wells. While the document made no comment about the fact that residue of all types would also have gone into the wells with the storm water, the extraction of gold ore from battery operations would have left considerable amounts of arsenic and cyanide, so there is every possibility the water in the wells was highly contaminated.
Apart from that background, the story is fictional and I am not presenting Kalgoorlie-Boulder as a place that carried the attitudes or behaviours of people in a story set in 1974. I could have set it in any gold field with a long history near a large town. But knowing the Eastern Goldfields well, the area having a large Aboriginal population, and, as I said, Kalgoorlie-Boulder being large enough to have many bureaucracies, it all seemed to fit.
But the story does outline the reticence of some bureaucracies and bureaucrats to embrace change, even when the aim is something as necessary as improving Aboriginal rights and overcoming some of the dysfunction and dependence visited upon them. And the natural threat and fear that accompanies change is often exacerbated when those in charge seek to protect their power and control over people and situations at all costs.
As I commented at the launch: “The bureacratic role is to provide stability and organisation in our world and it is one I appreciate. But when that role begins to dictate or enforce inequitable treatment of individuals and races because of its inflexibility, for whatever reasons, the system is in need of a total overhaul.”
Such is a major theme of “Turn on a Light”.