A wide Brown land shaking off its collective memory

At about the time George W. Bush was assuring us the war in Iraq was going swimmingly, and that the Democrats would pose him no problem in the mid-term elections, mayors all over South Australia were facing their own moment of truth. In our part of the mayoral world, what had looked like being a straightforward return of the old guard became a genuine race when a second candidate—let’s call him Brown—entered the field.

Brown, who only ever campaigned as a surname, swamped the district with his publicity. "Brown" appeared on rural posts and fences, while in the township "Brown" flowered everywhere like spring bulbs. "Brown" caught your eye on a fence as you entered the northern end of the town and then, in case you’d missed the point, an old grey horse that habitually dreamed in a town paddock suddenly began wearing a blanket on which was emblazoned the word "Brown". When someone stole the sign on the fence, it was replaced with another, reading, "Who stole our sign?—Brown."

Against this onslaught, Brown’s opponent—let’s call her Mary Jones—seemed unable to make any headway. As the incumbent she no doubt had an advantage, but the scarcity of Jonesian signage suggested a dangerous smugness, a certain complacency.

I have to admit that I was more interested in George W.’s fortunes than the struggle between Mary Jones and Brown, but something about the man we knew only as a surname nagged at my memory and a bit of quick research in back issues of the local paper soon reminded me. It was all to do with John Ainsworth Horrocks.

Horrocks arrived in the colony on his birthday, 22 March 1839. His mentor and adviser was the explorer Edward John Eyre and, though he took Eyre’s advice to become a pastoralist, establishing himself in the mid-north at Penwortham, Horrocks was also a keen explorer. He quickly made a reputation as a well organised, intrepid and commanding figure, mapping the sparsely occupied north of the state. He was an innovator too: among several ground breaking distinctions, he was the first man to use camels as part of his exploration team.

In July 1846, the "King of the North", as he had become known, took a party of explorers that included the artist S.T. Gill on a search for grazing land beyond the limits of the existing settlements. The expedition was only a month or so old when Horrocks was accidentally wounded unpacking a loaded gun. He was taken back to his home at Penwortham and died there on 23 September 1846, aged 28. Several features in the district carry his name, such as Mount Horrocks and Horrocks Pass (pictured), and his exploits are memorialised in present day Penwortham.

A wide Brown land shaking off its collective memoryA group interested in local history, however, proposed to one of the last meetings of the pre-election council, of which Brown was a member and Mary Jones the Mayoress, that "Main North Road", the arterial road from south to north that runs through every town in the district, be renamed Horrocks Highway. Not only would this further honour the explorer, it would also roughly trace his tracks as he headed north on that last, fatal journey.

Brown strongly opposed this on the grounds that he would never remember the new name, and he reckoned his own amnesiac problems with nomenclature were probably representative of people generally. The proposal was defeated and the history group retired, hoping to renew their approach to the incoming council.

Well, it wasn’t quite the same as invading Iraq on the strength of dodgy intelligence, but Brown lost me there and then. Country towns all over Australia bristle with North and South Roads, High Streets, Victoria Streets, Main Streets, King and Queen Streets and other brainstorming spasms of the tired, unwilling or needlessly stodgy imagination. Conversely, every European hamlet, no matter how small, dusty and inert, has its Plaza of The Failed Revolution of 10 November or its Avenue of a Hundred Coups, or its Hill of the Extruded Fingernails, or some equivalent—history, custom and legend crowd at every corner by virtue of naming that is also an act of remembering, celebrating, recording.

In a country which periodically agonises its way through debates about its history and frets every decade or so about the quality of history teaching, it is remarkable how resistant we are to embedding notes and pointers on our past in the urban and rural landscapes.

George W. got rolled, as we know, and the world awaits the aftershocks. But up here in the mid-North the history group can forget about having another shot at Horrocks Highway. Brown’s in charge and his memory, like the memories of so many of his local, state and federal political colleagues, is shot to pieces.



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