Newsletter 352

Published August 24, 2020
Dirty old town

A friend, knowing that I came from a certain country town, recently presented me with a little book she had found. Coaltown: A Social Survey of Cessnock N.S.W. by Alan Walker (1946), proved to be absorbing reading. The author was obviously an early Australian follower of the French Annales school of historians, as he adeptly plumbed the depths of Cessnock’s mentalités.

In a section called (believe it or not) “International Politics”, Walker writes: “Cessnock, because of its situation at the end of a branch railway line, is something of a ‘back-water’.” (Passenger trains would cease running  in 1972.) He continues: “It is also, as we have seen, a one-industry town. All this has resulted in mental in-breeding… These circumstances restrict the people’s interest in international politics, and have bred a disinterest that even a world-shattering war has not been able to change fundmentally.”

“Cultural life”, it turns out, was as “undeveloped” as the taste for international politics. “There are no art or literature clubs,” he writes, “and serious attempts at providing educational facilties receive scant support from the mass of people.”

Neither did religion find fertile soil. “I have no reason for not going to Church,” says one typical interviewee. “I just dropped out and became careless.”

Never a chapter goes by without similar observations, and this confirmed two things in my mind: 1. I was right to get out as soon as I could 2. Nothing much has changed over the past 70 years. For those who have never experienced the sheer deadness of life in a country town – or rather a country town that is too close to the metropolitan centres to have any rural character – it would be difficult to understand how it feels to grow up in such an environment. Politics, culture, religion… nothing makes much of a scratch on the hard carapace of materialist indifference. And this was before the era of TV! When I return there today the place looks much more prosperous, but as for the attitudes, it might still be 1946.

It’s ironic this booklet came into my hands in the same week I’m meeting two former schoolmates for dinner. Brian Castles-Onion is a conductor with Opera Australia and John Hughes is English Master at Sydney Grammar, and a writer recently nominated for the Miles Franklin. We were born in the same year, and found our respective paths out of Cessnock in the fields of music, art and literature. There was precious little of any of this stuff in our hometown. Yet it’s impossible not to feel vaguely sentimental about the place, and to wonder if the cultural vacuum that is Cessnock, had an important generative influence on the lives we’ve led – one way or another.

Dragging myself away from memory lane, I can announce that this week’s art column deals with the Portia Geach Memorial Award. It’s the 56th year of the prize, which is yet another testimony to Australia’s undying love of portraiture. It would be great if we loved some other kind of art half as much. As a women-only event the Portia Geach suddenly seems tight in synch with our times, in which everything female is to be greeted with reverence. Well, almost.

The movie column is still in France, which seemed the only option when I considered the other ways I might squander valuable column space this week. Nicholas Bedo’s La Belle Époque is easily the classiest film in town. Some will find it a little too clever or too cute, but I expect most viewers will surrender to its charms without a fight.