Story telling from Australia
In a whirlwind week of talks, dinners, lunches and meetings there were moments that stood out – moments that matter.
Alan Erskine is an award-winning Mildura based journalist and editor, whose passion for story telling has led him to agree to write the life stories of at least two people when he retires, never mind that his own family has a heart wrenching tale stretching from Scotland to Israel, from Egypt to Australia.
Ahead of a talk the following day, Alan took us to the Working Men’s Club in Mildura for the weekly meat raffle, and looking down the table of smiling faces I realised that it doesn’t matter how we choose to celebrate this sense of community that binds us all together, it simply matters that we do. It was a wonderful night and I thank Alan for his generosity, his company, for this lovely article in the Mildura Weekly and for arranging a book talk at the Carnegie Centre
The Carnegie Centre is home to Mildura’s Genealogical Society, where Raylee and a fleet of dedicated volunteers keep the history and stories of Mildura alive. At every book talk I meet at least one person who carries a part of Broken Hill in his or her heart, and Mildura was no different. So thank you to everyone who came up to chat to me after the talk, and for sharing the stories of what we all love about Broken Hill.
The schedule was tight and we had a three-hour drive ahead so it was tempting to jump in the car and race off – what a mistake that would have been. The displays were fascinating, each carefully catalogued, and a display of military uniforms worn during the Second World War led me to a poem about flying by John Gillespie Magee Jr. There’s no direct connection with Mildura but I took a snapshot and read it aloud to CC as we crossed the border into New South Wales. He was at the wheel, alert for wild goats and kangaroos.
I wasn’t sure if he was listening so I glanced across and saw him silently mouthing the words, smiling. He joined in on the final few lines:
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew –
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
It turns out to be CC’s favourite poem. You can read the full text here.
We arrived in Broken Hill just after sunset, in that breathing pause between night and day when colours shift and fade, thankfully in time for a memorable dinner to mark John Gall’s retirement from decades of service on the board of the RFDS South Eastern Section.
Lunch the following day with members of the Broken Hill Women’s Auxiliary was a chance to reconnect with friends like Pauleane, Jenny, Olwyn, Val, Juarne, Mary, Coral and so many others. The President, Margaret Symes, laughed as she told me that Australian comedian Mark Trevorrow (aka Bob Downe) had phoned her out of the blue and declared, ‘I have to order a pudding!’ He’d read Love in the Outback and somehow tracked her down.
There was another moment later that evening, standing by a fire in an empty creek bed as night crept close, remembering the fellowship and joy of other nights, and other friends and family. On the drive home we stopped the car, switched off the lights and stood under a starlit sky, listening to an owl hooting in the distance. The sound was as soft as the sand beneath our feet.
The lump in my throat during Saturday’s talk was hardly a surprise; Broken Hill is where it all began. It’s somehow fitting that I had to move to a mining town in order to look below the surface of life, to dig deep and discover the treasures that had been there all along. Broken Hill is where I learnt how raw and beautiful love can be, how proud and fierce, how loyal and resilient. It’s also where I stopped running and finally made a commitment to CC, and to writing.
To see friends in the audience made it all the more difficult to speak without getting emotional – and infinitely more rewarding – so thank you Sue, Wendy and Marion, thank you Cheryl and the staff at Broken Hill City Library, to Paul and Kay at Browzers Bookshop and most of all thank you to those people who listened and who stayed afterwards to share their own stories.
There are stories everywhere you look in Broken Hill. We stayed in a place that holds a wealth of them. Opening the front door of the Duke of Cornwall is like opening the pages of a Dickensian novel – you step straight into the heart of a story woven into the threads of worn carpet, suspended in creaking floorboards, hidden behind suits of armour, pinned to the wall in faded photographs and held in a delicate Cinderella slipper that sits on a sideboard beside antique china.
When the lovely Traci learnt I was allergic to perfume and fabric softener she thoughtfully made sure the bed had brand new linen, so thank you Traci.
Sitting in the kindly shade of an upstairs balcony, looking towards the majestic beauty of the line of lode on a perfect winter’s day, I had another ‘moment’ as I realised how swiftly we all react to what’s on the surface. The first time I saw that huge slab of tailings I thought how unfortunate it was that it should dominate the town centre, but knowing something of Broken Hill’s story now, I appreciate its beauty. Perhaps we can only ever understand the true beauty of something when we dig deep enough to discover what’s below the surface.
After the book talk there was time to watch footie, to reconnect with more friends then it was on to dinner in the back garden of a stone cottage perched on a bluff at the edge of town. A bleeding line of red and gold shimmered in the distance, a smudge of splendour that slowly crept along the horizon to be swallowed by dark.
Everything that I love about Broken Hill was on display that night. There were talented artists in the group – Rick Ball, Ann Evers and Wendy Moore – all of them successful and dedicated yet understated about their skills and generous in sharing them with others. Jane Carroll was there too, a successful writer and someone I admired and longed to emulate when I first met her five years ago. Jane was equally modest about her achievements.
Along with Mal, Vic and Clyde, whose lives centre on helping others, we were a small group of people gathered around the flames that night, blazing in a rusty old drum shot through with bullet holes that allowed the fire to breathe and throw pinpricks of light across the yard. There was no hint of competition between us, no attempt to judge or measure, no need to score points or guard our words; we were simply a group of people enjoying each other’s company.
So thank you to everyone for welcoming us back to Broken Hill, to Mal and Wendy Moore, to Ann Evers and Rick Ball, to friends at the RFDS and John and Lynne Gall, to members of the Broken Hill Women’s Auxiliary, to David, Emily, Sue, Lisa, Deidre, Mike, Nandini, Darriea and to all those who offered us food and friendship; it was a memorable trip in so many ways.
I came back to Sydney with dirt on my boots – Broken Hill dirt – and I’m in no hurry to wash it off.