On first appearances, the community hall, an abandoned galvanised iron shed, seemed like the last place where anything significant might be found. But our guide, a 93 year old man, knew its story and he was keen to tell it to strangers, conscious of the fact that he and the hall were living on borrowed time.
As he talked, I sometimes felt that he was talking to himself, to the darkness….
As he turned his torch on and we head to one of the doorways his told us:
‘The hall was electrified after the First World War. There was a big party with lots of people and a band. My parents met each other.
It was like a miracle and a much needed one.
‘There was a fair bit of sadness in the community then. Many of the local blokes didn’t come back from the trenches and some of those who did come back, they were pretty crook…’
‘Pretty crook’ – classic dry Australian understatement.
‘Crook’ i.e. disabled for life physically or mentally or both.
He led us inside and for a while, we couldn’t see anything.
All day our eyes had been staring into daunting expanses and now we were in a dark, confined space, our vision dependent on a narrow beam of light. Everything was heavy with dust, it swam in the torch light like a swarm of microbes under a microscope.
Gradually details came into focus.
We were in a long high room with a ceiling and walls of flat board and a wooden floor.
At one end of the room was a raised podium, with curtains either side. As we walked towards the podium, we passed the shadowy forms of wooden chairs stacked against the wall and an old piano.
The torch glanced a painted image above the podium and I asked Tom if he could focus his torch in that direction. There was a British Union Jack and on one side of it a kangaroo and on the other, an emu.
I said: ‘That’s going back a way, the British flag’.
He stopped and studied the image as if seeing it for the first time.
‘Yep, going back a way…. that’s the country my wife and I grew up in, the country which my father fought for in the first world war. We were a British colony. We used pounds, shillings and pence. At school we sang God Save The Queen every morning. There’s a flagpole out the front of the hall. Nothing on it now, hasn’t been for a long time. When I was a kid it was my job every morning to hoist the Union Jack and in the afternoon, bring it down and fold it up…’
On either side of the podium was a short flight of steps.
We mounted one side and stood on the stage.
There were some chairs there. Tom sat down and we followed suit. He directed his torch towards the end of the hall, but the beam failed to penetrate the dust and the darkness.
He turned it off for a while.
‘Give the batteries a rest’ he quipped.
Maybe it was him that needed the rest. He´d been working all day planting seedlings.
The glowing embers of our fire could be dimly discerned through the narrow windows.
In this eerie setting, with our questions coming out the darkness like bats, Tom Fullers became another man: like a guide leading a group into a foreign land. The story of the community hall appeared before us like an image on a sheet of photographic paper in a tray of developer.
‘The hall was the centre of life at a time when there were far more people living on the land. The farms were much smaller and there was large number of agricultural labourers and their families. There was no class stuff. Didn´t matter if you owned land or worked it, came down to the same thing. Everyone helped each other. The community hall was the centre of that er….way of life shall I say. This was where people came together. There were concerts and plays, dances and meetings. People put newspapers, books and magazines in here for everyone else to read and when the radiogram came, they bought records and put them in here for people to listen to….
I’m not saying it was paradise. They were hard times and we made mistakes. We cleared too much land, we had no respect for the environment. I don’t even want to think about what we did to the original inhabitants of this land. But I was a part of it and now that I’m old, I’m a greeny, I’m a different man, but it’s bit late!….’
Whilst we were standing there in the darkness, scrabbling sounds could be heard in the ceiling.
‘Possums’ he said, ‘Nature’s taking over’.
He turned his torch on and we descended the steps and he led us over the radiogram/record player which was on the opposite side of the hall to the piano. The radiogram was a large, rectangular box with a mahogany exterior.
‘During the war, I used to come here with my parents and listen to the radio along with lots of others. All of us were worried sick about sons and fathers away in the jungles fighting the Japanese. My older brother was in Borneo and he never came back. We lived in fear of getting the worst news you could get. We listened to stories, drama, and comedy to escape the tension. When a family lost a loved one we were there for them. There were no such thing as ‘mental health issues’ and no professional help. We were on our own and it was a long way from Adelaide. The roads weren’t sealed and were pretty rough and only a few people could afford a motor car and anyway, there was stringent petrol rationing. We were out on a limb and always had been.’
He led us over to the end of the room opposite the stage.
It was then that we realised how big that room was.
We came to a pile of wooden desks stacked on top of each other. One was standing separate. It had a bench seat. There was a deep groove in the wood for pencils and pens. On one side of the desk was a ceramic ink well.
He explained to us how it worked. Pens with metal nibs. Dip the pen in the ink well and write big cursive letters on blank paper. A square of blotting paper to press on the ink sentences so that the ink didn’t run. Then one day all that vanished with the arrival of the mass production of biros.
For centuries, people had written – letters, books, pamphlets – with a pen and ink. Then within a year or two it vanished. Like the phone with a cord and then, the mobile phone.
There were a blackboard on wooden supports.
‘Miss Paech. She was a German lady. She didn’t take any nonsense! She’d belt you on the hand with a cane for not paying attention! Do that today and they’d throw you in gaol! In those days our parents stood behind the teacher. If you got a belting you deserved it. The older generation were the first ones to get any education at all. Before that, most people were illiterate or semi-literate. So they knew how valuable education was. Thanks to Miss Paech, I learnt to read and write and to this day I love reading. She was alright. She used to read to us from a novel, a chapter a week. We couldn’t wait for the next chapter!’ he laughed. ‘like a soap on the TV!’
In a corner were shelves, crammed with books. I made a cursory attempt to read the titles and authors, but nothing was familiar to me.
Besides the sounds in the ceiling there were other, different sounds under the floorboards.
‘Rabbits. Always been a problem. We used to poison them. ‘
A memory came back to him:
We got our vaccinations here too…polio, diphtheria, TB and typhoid. Funny thing you know; those diseases, we had never experienced them, never known anyone who had. They were adult words. All we knew was that we didn’t like being jabbed in the arm. It was like education; it was a privilege, it was progress. Now with this Covid stuff, it’s so different. We can see what it’s doing. It’s not some word on a page…’
No, it wasn’t. It was a part of our modern world, where the light of progress had been dimmed by the long shadow of something primeval. Progress was no longer simple, something beyond question. In Tom’s day, progress met being the electrification of the hall, literacy, and protection from terrible diseases; society meant a chain of relationships, a community.
‘You’re the last people to see the hall’ he said as we head back outside, ‘I’d say that in another month it will be in the back of a truck and on the way to a dump’.
The sheer coincidence of our camping here the night, which had granted him his last chance to visit the hall and relive the past…..
We were on this bike trip because we couldn’t travel anywhere else in the world. Used to constantly crossing borders and changing cultures, our lives had been turned upside down.
At one point, Anya asked: ‘So where do the community go to now?’
‘Community? There is no community’.
When we emerged from the hall, it was to be greeted a different kind of night than the one we departed from when we entered the hall.
On the breeze came the sounds of big machines, like the low rumble of a passing aeroplane. Their lamps illuminated long stretches of fields.
Where had they come from?
In the afternoon, the land had been as empty and as quiet as the depths of the Sahara.
‘They’re seeding barley’ he explained, ‘the machines and the operators are hired in and work in shifts.’
‘They’re not locals….not farmers?’
‘Around here most of the land is owned by a Chinese-Malaysian corporation.’
‘Where are the farmers?’
He laughed: ‘They got old! Like me!‘
And by way of afterthought: ‘The kids aren’t interested in living on the land. The farms get bought up by foreign corporations.’
He said ´cheerio´ and drove off, leaving us alone with the embers of our fire.
The old building took on a very different prospect than during the afternoon.
More than a windbreak, a place to stop for a night.
The clear immense night sky was a blaze of stars. In the cold wind could be heard the sound of the machines and the inexorable march of a relentless future.
Once upon a time the community hall was the centre of the universe for the people living in the area. The people were gone.
When I thought about globalisation and its shadow sides, I thought of factories closing, big corporations locating to places like China or Vietnam or Bangla Desh and thousands of workers left without a job.
In this case, big corporations were moving in and the traditional farming communities were disintegrating.
Community? There is no community!
Our communities were now in the ether and experienced via our phones on the social media.
Whether this was an improvement, I couldn’t say.
It was a change and change was the only constant in our lives, for better or for worse.