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Features & profiles

 

My Byron Seachange

20 January 2001

Published in The Age 


THE IDEA OF a seachange first hit me when I laid eyes on the Mullumbimby Swimming Pool Extension Fund Queen.
 
She seemed to encapsulate all the hot weather, the whimsicality and the community I felt city life had deprived me of. It was 1986, and I was a pale southern visitor to Mullumbimby and its Chincogan Parade - an annual social highlight on NSW’s north coast.
 
It was a good year for beauty queens, and they were all in the Chincogan Parade. The Swimming Pool Extension Fund Queen was followed by the Meat Week Queen. Then came Miss Chincogan - waving to farmer and feral, Rotarian and Rastafarian alike, among the thousands watching her pass.
 
A young man with glazed eyes lurched through the crowd, brandishing a sign saying Free the weed. He was watched by a knot of bemused, elderly ladies who, from the size of their floral hats, might have been expecting a Royal Tour.
 
The Commonwealth Bank float chugged by. Money boxes were flung into the crowd. An old man went down - donged in the forehead. Then a mother of four was hit, and sank slowly to her knees. The St John’s Ambulance swung into action.

 
THE WAY I see it, small coastal settlements have three main allures: community, geography and eccentricity.
 
All three were on display in the ABC’s nation-stopping SeaChange series, which forced into waking consciousness a dream which has rumbled round in the basement of the national psyche since the late nineteenth century: when AB Paterson observed city people “shoulder one another in their rush and nervous haste” - and longed to swap places with Clancy, amid his
 
  “...vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars.”
 
Our answer to the old yearning, in the second half of the twentieth century, was a series of Pearl Bays.
 
The vast majority of Australia’s Pearl Bays are clandestine: nobody has ever heard of them, and the locals hope it stays that way. But there are a few famous ones: perhaps the most famous being Surfers Paradise, Noosa Heads, and now Byron Bay - just down the track from where I ended up, after that glimpse of the Swimming Pool Extension Fund Queen and her co-goddesses.
 
Any small town charm Surfers and Noosa once held is now a matter for the history books. Byron has been hanging in the balance for perhaps five years. “It’s ruined,” half its residents mutter, as new developments go up, and 30,000 revellers descend each New Year’s Eve. The other half think there’s still hope.
 
I joined the pessimists just recently, when I drove down to Byron and ran into a monster holiday traffic jam: four solid kilometres of stationary cars.
 
Victims of their own success, the more famous Pearl Bays are always ephemeral affairs. Like Rome during its decline, they tend to become internally divided (Byron’s community brawls are legendary) - and fall under the spell of exotic new religions.
 
The classifieds of Byron’s local paper - The Echo - announce a new “enlightened master” or incarnation of God with every passing week. Byron even has an Archangel, who paces before his small audiences in white robes, exclaiming: “Those people who are harming the environment - God has told me that bad things will happen to them!”
 
Others channel message from angels, medieval witches, the dolphins swimming off Cape Byron, or “your ancestors from outer space” (sic.). All this on the heels of a swarm of property speculators, and a billion tourists.
 
“ALIEN INVASION ” shrieked The Echo’s holiday edition:
 
“As Byron’s fame spreads across the galaxy, lifeforms bearing little resemblance to humans pay a visit to the nervous seaside town...”
 
The smart money is heading for Byron Bay, it’s true. The smart people, however, are heading elsewhere.
 
 
WHICH BRINGS US to the Category B Pearl Bays: the clandestine ones. If you’re contemplating a seachange, these, obviously, are the ones to seek out.
 
Mullumbimby (for example) is still deliciously clandestine. Unlike Byron, it hasn’t changed dramatically since 1986. (Though an old Aboriginal informed its civic leaders that Chincogan  - the name of the mountain which towers above the town - translates as “erect male member”, causing the Miss Chincogan Quest to be hastily abandoned.)
 
A jewel of a town ten minutes from the sea, and twenty minutes north of Byron, Mullumbimby is gateway to several gorgeous valleys - each replete with its own legendary love affairs, all-night tribal gatherings and drownings. (Life and death walk close in the Mullumbimby valleys.)
 
This is also the land of minor prodigies, like the mechanic who’ll fix any engine known to man - for free - provided you stay to listen to his crackpot theories on world politics; and the witch who puts hexes, with some apparent success, on unpopular public officials.
 
Another prodigy from these backblocks is Fast Buck$ - formerly Mr John Anderson of Melbourne. Anderson was a Melbourne University graduate and activist in the 1970s.
 
Fast Buck$ (as he is universally known) harasses media, politicians and business alike, for “dishonesty, rorts - any dodgy stuff”. Giant billboards atop his car detail the crimes of local planners and shire councillors.
 
In 1998 Buck$ was himself elected to the Byron Shire Council. During the height of his unpopularity with his right-wing fellow councillors, he showed up to a council meeting dressed as Jesus Christ, complete with crown of thorns and a hefty cross.
 
Buck$ lives at tiny Coorabell in the hills behind Byron.
 
He has the right idea. Whether on the beach or in the cooler hinterland, these slumbering villages and towns are where the real charm of the north coast now lies.
 
 
IS THERE ANOTHER side to this charm: a downside to all this arcadian joy?
 
Well, there are the wet years, when it rains for weeks at a time. And there are canetoads, mold, alarmingly friendly pythons, and a lack of decent supermarkets.
 
Queensland is just up the road, too, and Queenslanders increasingly descend on the region for their holidays. (“I can’t sleep,” a new arrival hissed to his partner recently, in the middle of the night. “It’s Queensland. I can feel  it.”)
 
Then there’s the north coast’s somewhat enfeebled work ethic (which some southerners can’t abide). Underpinning this may be the region’s deep and quite un-Western fatalism: a product, maybe, of cannabis, eastern spirituality (with its undertones of passivity) and astrology.
 
The latter is the region’s state religion, though no-one would admit it. Between the lines of a thousand conversations, one is told that times are tough, that love is hard to find - that one is the way one is - because of the vast, unalterable influences of the planets.
 
When the projector broke down at the Byron cinema one night last year, there was a competition - presumably to keep our spirits up. Free tickets were awarded to the first person to guess the usherette’s star sign.
 
This had the reverse effect on my  spirits. For days afterwards I longed for cricket at the MCG, Readings Bookstore - and that indefinable “edge” which city living has.
 
Things got worse as the tourist season drew near: the Echo’s classifieds were enough to make Shirley MacLaine forget her mantra. They contained more incarnations of God than the last Hindu Golden Age. As well, there were ads for Tibetan chakra cleanse (“using tuning fork”), psychic tarot, intuitive sound/colour vibrational balancing, astro-palmistry, mahjong divination, metaphysical theatre, cranio-sacral realignment, and drive-thru chakra rebalancing.
 
Alright, I made the last one up - but it can’t be far away.
 
By Christmas, I could hardly wait to hit the road to Melbourne. My ardor was increased by what I saw in my rear-vision mirror: a multitude of four-wheel-drives heading down over the Queensland border, like the swarm of gnats which pursued Jacob of Nisibis - the original Santa Claus - to the Council of Nicea.
 
 
OF COURSE THE grass is always greener on the other side, especially if the other side has as its holy temple the MCG, where the grass was (in my imagination) greenest of all. As a four-year-old, I’d watched John Landy run here in the  Olympics, and after the ‘64 Grand Final had swerved through a dozen policemen to reach Barassi in the centre, and shake hands.
 
But the Boxing Day Test was a horror: an explosion of noise terminated all conversation, and sent old people reeling back in their seats. It was the MCG’s PA system, trying to sell us beer, and cars. I didn’t stay long, and won’t be going back.
 
Was this what Melbourne had become, I briefly wondered - an advertising market? A seamy casino town, where parking was near-impossible, and housebreaking rife?
 
Maybe I’d seen its best years, and was better off where I was.
 
Soon, happily, the Vic Market turned me around. And the new Museum. The IMAX cinema helped as well. To say nothing of the coffee lounges of Acland, Brunswick and Nicholson Streets. And even the beach at Sandringham, with its large, gently rolling waves: nice not to be clobbered by Pacific surf for a change.
 
Melbourne’s best quality, though, is harder to define.
 
A traveller friend of mine remembers Melbourne from being unable to catch the attention of a tram conductor, whose head was buried in Proust. The conductors have gone: but Melbourne is still a city of ideas - and that’s probably what I miss most.
 
I had to ask myself, on the long drive home, whether I wanted all of that back. Or do I want low stress levels, year-round warmth, and a 300 metre walk from home to a near-deserted beach? It’s an unsettling question, as it highlights two strong opposites in my own nature - and it’s one I’m still asking.
 
But there are worse places to wait for the answer than one where the doctor demands a surf report before he’ll examine you; where federal politics is rarely mentioned; where a civic leader will occasionally escape breathylisation by leaving his car and vaulting over back fences, a clutch of policemen in his wake.
 
 
OTHER GENERATIONS HAVE grown up with Boney or the wolf or the Devil himself for their bogeyman. We Baby Boomers had World War Three, which hung over us like a thunderhead, from the cradle to the cusp of middle-age. (I remember opening The Age before school one morning during the Cuban Missile Crisis, to read: “As the world teeters on the brink of nuclear war...”)
 
As it turned out, World War Three came in slow increments: with the assassination of our heroes, one by one; a disintegrating natural environment; horrific new diseases; the decline of our main religion; slowly eroding faith in courts, parliaments, priests, leaders. It’s hardly surprising that some people left it all, to make their peace with God, nature or themselves: the closing years of the twentieth century were a fairly tough gig.
 
We humans, my neighbour recently explained to me, are the result of genetic experiments conducted 200,000 years ago by visitors from the Sirius star system. Markings on ancient Babylonian tablets are clear evidence of this.
 
I bit my tongue, to restrain the blizzard of science with which I was about to bury her. I recalled Joseph Campbell writing that our ability to create myth is inborn: part of the hard-wiring - something I’d always doubted till that moment.
 
Like the rest of us, my neighbour needs a story by which she might explain the universe to herself. Entirely from her own research and intuition, she’d come up with her account of the star-visitors.
 
Who am I to criticise? World War Three on the instalment plan did its thing with her life, too: her childhood myths - of virgin births and resurrections - have fallen on hard times. And rationality will never be enough for her, just as it hasn’t been enough for every generation before ours, and for the vast majority of the Earth’s population today.
 
To live lives which are not saturated in religion, where we barely know our neighbours, and where we see little of the everlasting stars, is a rare thing in human history. Things which were of great consequence to all other generations have been lost to us.
 
When I’m in a good mood, I tend to see the Byron region as a grand, flawed, intuitive, faltering, often inspiring, sometimes comical, attempt to put Humpty Dumpty together again.


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