A Road Trip
Early this year my book The Poinciana Tree was published by Connor Court. I called it a novel but in essence it was a memoir of my family in the middle of last century. While the characters and events were real, their conversations and experiences were imagined, but I made sure that their responses to circumstances should be authentic to their personalities.
Though the book’s time frame stretched back to long before I was born and forward to the first twenty odd years of my life, I loved the process of delving into my earliest memories, especially stories and events told to me as a young person by parents and their friends at the time. Sally thought there were too many characters in the book, but if you are recalling and writing about your distant memories, there were lots of people I encountered who influenced me.
Sally’s dear friend Cathy had been intrigued by my book and this November asked us to join her and her husband Lynn on a road trip through central west NSW and southern Queensland to visit places and surviving people featured in the Poinciana Tree. Just before we were due to go, to everyone’s dismay, they both came down with Covid, so after some soul-searching, we seized the moment and decided to go on our own.
We were away for a little over a week and it turned out to be an amazing experience, not just visiting old haunts, but the emotional response to finding the powerful reality of distant memories. We hear much about the traumas associated with terrible experiences from youth, but little about the forgotten happiness many of us had back then, maybe most of us. Even if those memories are parked in our brains somewhere, usually we have let the feelings go as we move through busy lives.
Our first night was spent in prosperous Mudgee, surrounded by vineyards; what could be better than steak and chips at Club Mudgee sitting on the lawn on a balmy evening? The next day took us to a different world of memory. We were heading for a sheep and cattle property called Talbragar. In the midst of beautiful green rolling hills, internet connection was lost and with it the map to our destination. Seeking help in a little town called Cassilis that seemed totally deserted, we finally found a friendly person who told us what road to follow and where we should turn off. After some wrong turns, we drove across a fast flowing stream and were met by Christine White who with her husband Henry, owns Talbragar.
What took city slickers like us to Talbragar? There is a back story. In the middle of World War II, families with little children in Brisbane where my family lived, were advised to evacuate to the country as there was grave concern that coastal Queensland might be invaded by the Japanese. My parents knew the White family, who insisted we come to stay with them during the war-time crisis. My father had a prescribed job in Brisbane so after much angst over leaving him behind, my mother took my baby brother David and me to Talbragar. We were there for almost a year and it became the first consistent memory of my life. Ever since I have remembered it as a place of excitement and happiness; the kitchen and its delicious smells, Bill and the blacksmith’s shop, the store in the garden full of tinned and packaged food and drinks, the scary mustering yard for the cattle, and the fascinating coloured booklets from the Correspondence School in Sydney that taught me letters and numbers and how to write. Our hosts, the Whites had a son of my age, Michael and we became best mates. I have never been back to Talbragar and never again met Michael after our early boyhood, though I often saw his mother in later life when in a second marriage she became a well-known chef and journalist, Joan Campbell.
When Christine White took us up to the homestead, and round the side into the kitchen garden, I had a sudden emotional response. This was exactly the same place I had played In every day. The kitchen was the same, the garden store was now overgrown and full of tools, not tins of food; Bill’s shop was a rusty ruin, and the verandah where I did my correspondence hooks and numbers, was now enclosed. We sat under the vine-laden trellis with Christine, her husband Henry and daughter who works on the property. Sadly Henry’s father, my childhood friend Michael, who lives in retirement in nearby Coolah, had got the date wrong and was unable to be there. We all sat there for ages, with these interesting people who had never heard of me before my self-inviting email a few weeks before. We talked of our pasts, our present, and our futures. I was able to tell them things about Talbragar from long before any of them were born; it was like we were all old friends. For me it was a revelation about the meaning of childhood.
We drove on to Goondiwindi that afternoon, via Coonabarabran, Narrabri and Moree, along recently flooded and potholed roads, through wide landscapes that constantly changed. Moree with its endless silos looked like the grain capital of Australia, then later arriving at friendly Goondiwindi, made famous by the racing exploits in the 70s of Gunsynd.
Arriving in Brisbane two days later was again a shock for someone who hadn’t been to his home city for over ten years. We stayed a few days by the river near verdant New Farm Park. It was a blast from the past to see streets full of the flat canopied poinciana trees in full red bloom, one of which my father had planted in our front garden during the war. Sally and I travelled up and down the river to the city and to see friends by modern fast ferries. This was new. Brisbane never did ferries; it was always the city of silver trams. When I was a boy, I would take my fox terrier Nick down to the corner of Sandgate Road and sit and watch the trams. I knew them all: the new silver ones and their individual numbers, the old grey ones with their curved brass armrests to stop you falling off, and best of all the ancient red ones that rocked on one bogie while the driver twirled the steering handles.
The views of downtown Brisbane from the ferries were astonishing. The skyscrapers seemed taller, flashier and far more numerous than Sydney or Melbourne. So many people must live on 45th levels with views to the bay or the Gold Coast and have boat ramps below. There were bridges everywhere, some just to walk across the wide river. In my day there were only three, the Storey, the Victoria and the Grey Street. This was not the sleepy, dusty city I knew; it was a metropolis. Even the thousands of rusty roofed Queenslanders I knew sitting on elevated wooden poles (stumps we called them), were gleaming white with sleek BMWs or Mercs parked underneath. As a contrast to the gigantic high rise building development and glamourising of old housing, it was wonderful to visit our old friends Sandra and Clark Ingram and see their beautiful little house nestling unchanged in its haven between rocky stone walls covered in lush exotics and vines. They wined and dined us and drove us around Brisbane as we marvelled at its transformation.
The new Brisbane is not an ephemeral high-rise city. Robin Gibson, the famed Brisbane architect who imagined and designed the marvellous Queensland Cultural Centre on the South Bank of the river, would be thrilled to see how it has developed into a thronging arts centre, superior in size, scope and elegance to any other arts centre in Australia, the white concrete vitiated by hundreds of colourful trees and shrubs, but most of all, its inter-connectedness ensures it is full of admiring people using and visiting its wealth of halls, galleries, and institutions.
Late in World War II, my father died, ending a deeply loving marriage, and casting my mother and her two young boys into poverty, relieved by her sewing and smocking baby clothes day and night for years. Our isolation and poverty was mitigated by family friends who took us into their orbit, invited us on holiday and provided emotional succour to my lonely mother. The family that I believe was dearest to her heart were the Browns, Tom and Betty. They had four children, two of my age and two much younger. They took us regularly to their little farm at Mt Glorious, in the hills fifty kilometres west of Brisbane. I loved the farm and all the Browns more than anything else in the world, except my dutiful love of my mother. One of the children, Erica, was my age and became my childhood love, nothing new for her as she was loved by everyone.
The highlight of our whole journey was a Sunday morning drinks gathering at our dear friend Margaret Moxon’s Clayfield apartment. Margaret’s late husband Simon was my oldest friend from my Brisbane days. Blessed with a keen memory for people, and a passion to keep in touch with old friends, Margaret knew exactly where to find people who were my friends in my youth, and mostly were friends of hers too. She gathered up a bevy of my old friends. The three surviving Brown siblings were there, none of whom I had seen since our youth: Thomas the eldest, and the much younger Sam and Deborah, Erica having died a few years ago. I had deep conversations with each of them, tracing our lives and memories. Deborah was much moved by my memories of her mother whom I had adored in my youth and was the one person of the ‘older generation’ I could tell anything. The four of us belted out the ditty we had all been taught by our primary school teacher Gordo to remember the northern rivers of NSW:
“Tweed Richmond Clarence McLeay
Was a hasty man.
He went hunting for hawks on the Shoalhaven.”
They told me we must come up to the farm at Mt Glorious next time we visit Brisbane. There must be a next time.
On the way back to Sydney we stopped a night with my brother David who lives on beautiful Mt Tamborine which might be the most gorgeous place to retire anywhere in Queensland. He is now widowed but lives a happy contented communal life there. His five boys and their partners are nearing middle age and are close by. The drive to Sydney down the straight four lane Pacific Highway was a breeze compared with the inland journey north. On our last morning we made a brief detour to Tea Gardens to visit Margaret, widow of my closet school friend Ken Wyatt. She was in good form, enjoying living in a spacious retirement village. It was a perfect way to a memorable journey.
12 December 2022