Lost in Atlantis

‘Could you tell me how to get to Cudgegong, mate?’

He crinkles his already generously lined face and pushes his thick woollen beanie so that it comes down over his forehead almost to his eyes. Behind him, down the embankment, a mob of sheep circles in the yard where he has just penned them. His dog—a scruffy, black and white, bright-eyed bitzer—is sitting at the closed gate of the yard observing our discussion. He looks as if he’s concentrating.

I show him ‘Cudgegong’ on the map. I don’t tell him that for the past ten uncertain kilometres, my wife had been wondering with growing conviction whether it wasn’t Rylstone we should be heading for.

‘Yeah, well—if you go a mile or so up the hill here, on your left you’ll see a sort of caravan park. Lotta flowers, painted rails, fancy name—all that sort of shit. Well, a bit further on, you’ll be able to look down on the lake.’ He points to the blue spot on my map. ‘That’s it’, he says. ‘That’s Cudgegong.’

 ‘But I’m looking for the town, not the lake.’

‘Mate’, he says with a huge and tolerant sigh, ‘the town’s under the lake. Has been these 30 years past. I was born and bred there. But I haven’t got bloody gills, have I? The whole outfit went under the water in—let’s see.’ He’s searching the cold, cloud scuffed sky for the date, but I laugh and thank him. I’ve obviously got the wrong town in my head.

‘I can see it’, I say, ‘couple of pubs, post office, store, even a restaurant—I think.’

‘Cudgegong only ever had one pub’, he says. ‘I oughta know. Bloody nearly had shares in the bastard. I reckon you must mean Rylstone, though I haven’t heard of any bloody restaurants in this part of the world.’ He says this as if ‘restaurant’ is a synonym for a serial killer or an exotic, deadly disease. But anyway, he’s right—and so is my wife. I did mean Rylstone and when, following his directions, we finally arrive there, it’s just as I remembered it, with the Cudgegong River flowing through it.

How I came to make this mistake is curious. I knew Rylstone. It wasn’t as if I was struggling to summon up memories of it. I concluded that a lifelong interest in Henry Lawson must have somehow hijacked my imagination. Because, of course, Cudgegong was central to that long ago land of paddocks scarified by drought or pocked and ravaged by hopeful prospectors—among whom Lawson’s father, Peter, was one of the more obsessed—that became Lawson’s imaginative territory.

The merest glance at the map brought up names surrounding the drowned Cudgegong that some of Lawson’s greatest stories and poems have endowed with a special resonance—Wallerawang, Gulgong, Eurunderie, Sofala, Hillend … 

For me, cold, hard map facts, a reasonably good memory and, most surprising of all, the protestations of my wife, had all been vanquished by the persuasive pressure of the Lawson country unfolding around us. And so we went to Cudgegong. Or rather, we didn’t.

It’s always hard to know what emphasis to place on the past glories, luminaries or tragedies that might endow an otherwise unexceptional place with an aura, with romance or intrigue. In many small Italian and French villages, streets and squares bear some mighty names or memorialise massive events; and sometimes the powerful nomenclature seems to sit awkwardly in a sleepy, dusty rural square or a narrow lane strung with washing. Still, the impulse seems right even if time and context have somewhat diminished the result.

Mudgee has its Lawson Park and Lawson Street and other salutes to the famous writer and his family. And in the Southern Flinders Ranges the beautiful township of Melrose has many streets named after pioneers and explorers. In general, though, most imaginative energy in the Australian inland seems to go into establishing the Big Pineapple or the Big Carp or Big Brahman Bull Testicle (I made that up, but give it time). Or an attractive little town greets you with South Terrace and farewells you with North Terrace and First, Second, Third, Fourth and Fifth Streets in between.

What is interesting about the ‘big’ titles is that they are self-deprecating; it is as if no-one is game to be serious about a small town’s modest but important attributes, history and pioneers. The recourse to compass directions and consecutive numbering is another version of the same denial. It’s a pity, because so many of Australia’s remote towns and settlements are endlessly absorbing, often attractive in some way or other, sometimes breathtaking in their placement, architecture or individuality.

‘Draw a wire fence and a few ragged gums, and add some scattered sheep running away from the train. Then you’ll have the bush all along the New South Wales western line from Bathurst on’, wrote Lawson. He meant this to convey a sense of monotony, and it does. But because it is such a brilliant description, it also captures a kind of essence. It is so right that it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. A bit of imaginative naming, drawing on Aboriginal and white history and stories, would perhaps similarly dramatise, better identify and culturally animate many unpretentious townships strung out across Lawson’s ‘mighty bush’.       

Brian Matthews is a distinguished Visiting Professor at VUT.



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