“Flame Trees” was sung by Jimmy Barnes to commemorate Australia Day on 26th January this year (2016). The song depicts the two sides of Grafton, its polarities, in a creative way. This town is the setting for my memoir “River Girl” that I intend to publish in the near future. We lived outside the main town at a place called Waterview. Being surrounded by nature was the positive side of my childhood when I was growing up.
Grafton and South Grafton
I was born and grew up in the far north coast town of Grafton in NSW, Australia. Actually, it was on the “poor cousin” South Grafton on the Clarence River at a place called Waterview. There’s a crooked bridge joining the two sides of the river. We lived on a block of land in a weatherboard cottage, a bit of a dump, really. Dad didn’t mind, so long as he was away from the town “rubber necks”. Mum hankered after mod cons and pretty things. Dad wanted only land, gum trees and bullocks.
There was an avenue of jacaranda trees, which marked the end of the township of South Grafton, and the start of the Gwydir Highway that we lived next to, one mile out from the town boundary.
Flowers and the Underbelly
Grafton had two sides to it. Always has had. There was nature on one side: the trees of spun gold, flame red and deep mauve. Carpets of mauve blossoms covered the bitumen roads in spring. The Jacaranda Festival, held each year in November, was like the fertility rites of pagan times. I wore a new floral skirt, a white blouse and for my neck, a crepe paper ley in many shades. School children danced around a tall maypole, spinning multi-coloured ribbons around it during the school celebrations. A Demeter-like queen was chosen for the year. One time it was an ex-schoolmate of mine.
The other side was always there, throbbing, pulsating just below the surface. Like the hidden green tree frogs that haunted the outdoor dunnies (lavatories) of my childhood. And there was the Grafton Gaol, lurking in the background, out of sight. New inmates were said to be welcomed by a guard of baton-wielding officers. And the floods, the droughts, the rivers of blood…
Still, I remember above all the flowers, the trees and the animals. We lived opposite Grandma’s farm. The bitter-sweet smelling lantana bush at the side steps always had butterflies sipping at its purple-and-white flowers. There was a grape trellis in the back yard for shade, under which we feasted on watermelon, loqats, grapes and mulberries grown on the farm. An old barn covered in an orange trumpet vine drew townspeople in cars to gawk at it from the highway. Horses and yellow-and-white jersey and guernsey milkers grazed in the paddocks. A red bull stamped on the others side of the barbed wire fence.
Uncles and Country Life
Two uncles, Eric and Bargy (pronounced /bah…ghi/) ran the farm, but Grandma was the boss. Other uncles came to visit from time to time. There was the one-legged barber uncle, the fat uncle who drove Gilbarco trucks, the famous cyclist and “black sheep” of the family, nicknamed Cyclone Johnny, and the Hollywood look-alike, Uncle Stan, who sometimes escaped his wife in Sydney. (“She gets crankier every year!”).
Riding horses was, and probably still is, the main entertainment for the young, especially girls, in the country. I joined the local pony club and went to gymkhanas at the showground. When I got older I wanted more, and gravitated to cities,first Sydney, then overseas to London and Paris, where I lived for four years.
But a country life stays with you forever, the flavours, smells, views and sounds of nature are what inform my voice, when I write fiction and memoir now.
The Song of the Jacarandas
My adult daughter, born in the eighties, drew my attention to the above song recently. I’d told her stories about growing up in South Grafton, and she had fond memories of her grandmother and great-uncles. She started listening to the lyrics and felt the nostalgia therein. “Flame Trees” is a song by the rock band Cold Chisel from their 1984 album Twentieth Century. One of the members of the band, Don Walker, grew up in Grafton. He knew about how the jacarandas, as well as the many flame trees, set the country town ablaze every spring.
I love the way the YouTube video above presents the two sides of the country town where I grew up. Many of the images, the crooked lift bridge and the hotels, are authentic and memorable still for me today.