The suburb of Holsworthy where I’m staying has evolved from it’s original army base function in order to support a housing development. The development is well designed as an interlocking maze of courts, each street containing around fifty houses. There are small parks or common areas dotted throughout, there’s a child-friendly speed limit of 40kph and the houses are generous, three to four bedrooms, sometimes condominiums with a small back lawn and a garage in front. The planners have even left a patch of wilderness, a scraggly piece of gum-tree bush for older kids to play in. There’s a small scale shopping centre with a supermarket, a liquor outlet, a couple of takeaways and a community centre and there’s a train station nearby with regular trains to the airport and the city. The inhabitants are overwhelmingly first generation migrants, from the Middle East or Asia; the occasional elderly Australian registering as a museum piece.
But despite this competent planning for community, the people seem resolutely cut off from one another. No one looks and no one talks. The front door of where I’m staying is 5 metres away from the neighbour’s front door but the concept of dialogue is, by some unwritten agreement, out of the question. People exit, get in their car and drive away. The nearest to a public event is someone washing their boat. Of course children have to go to and from school so there is morning and afternoon movement, but overall, a considerable alienation reigns and I realise that inside each house memory of, and maintaining contact with home, is the important thing and achieved via social media, reruns of Iraqi soap operas, Bollywood movies and television on demand from the home country. Locally there are perhaps visits to mosque or church and a network of extended family who have similarly migrated.
These people are, above all, here for material reasons, to live the Australian Dream. And it must be working out, for the cars are new, the houses are air conditioned, there are abundant bathrooms and the tv, fridge and stove will be smart. But this fundamentalist materialism produces a cultural sterility. This is another wave of capitalist settler culture. The indigenous culture, a time when different relations with the land were formed, is totally absent. These new settlers are achieving the immediate dream and for the next generation, an even greater dream begins: to be an NRL star, or a rapper or a model, or simply to head up the IT ladder, to become a fair dinkum Aussie. Or maybe to, in turn, head to LA or New York.
Outside the suburb, as you enter the link roads and highways, crammed with trucks and other traffic, lined with service centres, takeaways, light industry and warehousing, an intense ugliness exists. Here as well, the traffic gridlock begins.
But there is, with Covid, a great irony, for in a place which denies contact, contact now needs to be able to be traced with thoroughness. The virus joins people, crossing ethnic, material and geographic boundaries with great ease. The virus becomes the community which capitalism has eradicated − except in the mind of a nostalgic town planner. And in a further irony, once contact has been found, people need to be even further isolated.
I suspect the climate emergency will have a similar effect; re-moving the migrant yet, at the same time, leaving some behind, to relearn other types of relationship. The Aussies, like the Americans, will find this hard. At the moment there are only a few marginal, small countries on the edge of the global catastrophe who seem capable of adjusting in a reasonable manner: Aotearoa, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries, maybe southern Ireland.
But enough. There remains, in every situation, the wonder of the new-born child, slowly opening his eyes and gazing, with a slight frown, on the world he has inherited. This morning, at 4am, he babbled for the first time and language was once again created. That first babble produced in me a feeling of immense love.
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