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bourke to burk

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 26-Aug-2010

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 15

Wordcount: 798

Mediocrity replaces grace in the country


It’s a typical country pub; all verandahed charm outside but dominated within by trans-fats and more TVs than patrons, all of them – patrons and screens – tuned to sport. Which is to say, betting.

But we are tired and dusty after a week outback, and have eyes for a different race. Having voted earlier at picturesque Coonamble High we’ve picked Gulgong’s unspoiled collection of wild-west facades as a good bet for a shower, a pub meal and some communal, maybe even (we fantasise) fireside election-watching.

“Any chance of tuning a TV to the election later on?” Our request causes the barmaid a moment’s surprise, followed by a shrug – like, election? Are you serious? when the dogs are running? – and grudging acquiescence.

By our return, then, after a cursory tour of Gulgong’s four downtown pubs (and twice as many big-screen TVs) yields no whiff of election, Graham Richardson’s rose-petal complexion is unmistakable at the neglected end of the room, pinker, dewier, larger than life. We watch, but excepting the chorus of derision as the Greens take Melbourne, we watch this train-crash of an election alone.

It wasn’t just Gulgong. From what I gather, such nonchalance was the standard rural response to Saturday’s election. So it’s kind of ironic that this was the race that put country in charge. But will it change anything? Even there?

There is much to love about the dry interior, but it’s hard to forgive is the way country towns have, over the past century or so, snatched mediocrity from the jaws of genuine graciousness.

Take Bourke. Never rich, never capital of anything, Bourke is nevertheless studded with dowager buildings whose intellectual and environmental elegance put us, now, to shame.

The Government Offices, for example, built in 1865, is a spreading, gabled and verandahed corrugated-iron pile, one block back from the once-glorious Darling.

With its lanterned rooftop, deep-shaded walls and water-filled basement, the building is a study in spatial finesse, civic grace and climatic sensitivity, an exemplar of doubling passive solar with enchantment.

Yet today, despite proud proclamations of its five-star green rating, the building’s subterranean tanks stand empty and its decorative wall-vents closed as conditioned air is pumped throughout, and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Or take the Bourke Court House, an exuberant essay in Federation freestyle, complete with turrets, loggias and a green garden court with no higher purpose than giving people somewhere to wait for their court appearance. The courtroom itself – part chapel, part schoolroom, part parliament – with its dark timber benches, semi-circular clerestories and rooftop lantern, is every bit as dignified, and dignifying, as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unity Temple in Chicago.

The Government Offices were designed by the Colonial Architect James Barnet (of Sydney GPO and Australian Museum fame), the Court House was by George Oakeshott, assistant to Government Architect Walter Liberty Vernon, a former Royal Academy pupil of Robert Smirke (who did the British Museum).

All true. But why can’t we produce comparable quality now? Why is Bourke’s Centrelink Building – the contemporary equivalent of court house or cop-shop, and sited opposite – entitled to slop along the street like some half-chewed bit of coconut ice, with its cheap steel columns, its mean-eyed aluminium windows and its risible kewpie-pink portico?

Certainly, there are time issues, and material issues. Somehow, a century ago, people found time to craft buildings in a way that seems impossible now, even if we had the skills. As to material, the divine rule says there’s low maintenance, and there’s real-feel – you can’t have both.

But those factors are as much urban as rural, which means there’s something else happening in the country. Increasingly, and especially where wealth propels development, there’s a creeping, soul-destroying uniformity.

Places that were once entirely particular – Tamworth, say – are now round-abouted, chain-stored, kerbed-and-guttered, shrubbed and manicured and generally suburbanised into indistinguishability from every other. While those few towns whose identity remains intact – such as Paterson, Capertee or Carinda – are preserved largely by neglect.

Is it, as some aver, the suburbanising influence of the Tidy Towns movement, run by Keep Australia Boring, with its phalanx of retired English teachers fanning out to inspect municipal fingernails and hem-lengths? Or is it television’s homogenising effect, like some strange Dr Who succubus that pulps its victims’ innards while leaving their facades intact?

Either way, it seems my fantasy of vivid Aussie ruralism – cheerful pubs, log fires, earthy humour, good simple food and staunch defence of country – must bow a while longer to the ubiquitous scourge of TAB and screen; pokies, lobster mornay, girlie premixes and wild teen bingeing. Australia – dignified one century, trashed the next.

But wonder this. Will the expected flood of “regional” policy from a parliament hung-by-country make this better? Or worse?


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