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A love song to the surly, burly, crappy Australia of old

By Richard Glover

In my favourite small town, Taralga, they've done up the top pub. It's all plasma TVs and marble tabletops. There's a wine list and fine food. It's all terrific. Part of me, though, liked the old pub.

In the 1990s, I used to go to Taralga all the time, choosing either top pub or bottom pub. The typical scene would feature three sheep farmers, all wearing beanies to banish the cold, sitting in steely silence and staring into the middle distance. The only noise was provided by the microwave, which would occasionally go "ping" to signify the arrival of another meat-pie-in-a-plastic-bag, presented, in a miracle of physics, with a burning-hot centre and a freezing-cold exterior.

There was also a framed photo of the local footy team and a blackboard with the latest footy results. There were three teams in the comp, so you probably had a fair chance of making the semis.

Conversations were not plentiful, although I had a beauty with a woman in her 80s who had just moved to town. "Why have you come to Taralga?" I asked. "Oh, to die," she said brightly. "The local cemetery is quite marvellous."

She took a sip of her beer and described the scenic qualities of the Stonequarry Cemetery. "It's up on Golspie Road," she advised. "You should take a look. Perfect place for when you're dead."

I promised I'd check it out.

The bleak conversation fitted the bleak old pub and the dying old town. Now, in the past few years, everything has changed. The drought has broken, the town is busier, the countryside greener. People move there to live, not die. And the pub has marble tabletops.

Yet, for some of us, there is nostalgia in the ratty, crappy, frayed Australia of a few decades ago: the Australia in which not every sandwich had to feature marinated goat's fetta, chargrilled capsicum and a price tag of $11.50.

Before we say goodbye to that old Australia, could we at least record some of its more memorable institutions?

  • The old-style municipal pool. No water slide; no plunge pool; no sun protection; no cappuccino machine at the kiosk. In fact, no kiosk. Just a pool with a bull-necked manager who was a complete bastard. Fabulous!
  • The tiny fibro beach house with lino on the floors and a Laminex kitchen table that seated eight. It was owned by a friend of Terry's aunt. It was shabby, noisy and stripped the stress out of you like a high-suction hose.
  • The pub with beer and nothing else. Ask for a red wine and the barman would give you a good long stare before rooting around for a single bottle of shiraz that he finally located in the fridge. There was a steel trough in which to drop your cigarette butts and a dartboard up the end, the pattern of hits - mostly on the wall - testimony to the players' inebriation.
  • The really rough pub at the wrong end of a big town in Queensland. Most of the clientele wore sunglasses, with caps pulled down hard. When Australia's Most Wanted came on the TV, the whole front bar emptied.
  • The country cafe whose owners invested in a cappuccino machine but then got tired of ordering the ground coffee to go with it. Arise the cheapuccino - steamed milk poured on a spoonful of International Roast, with a big spoonful of sugar, whether you wanted it or not. Delicious!
  • The motel that cost $40 a night. Fair enough, it wasn't that good. The pillows were so thin, you had to sleep with your elbow under your head, while the carpet was like a palimpsest, recording the many-layered story of previous occupants and their mishaps with various liquids. Strange fact: the sign outside advertising the presence of a pool was always larger than the pool itself.
  • The beachside kiosk selling ice-blocks to the kids. The pavement was so hot, you had to jump from foot to foot while you ordered, and the inadequate freezer meant the ice-blocks had all slumped out of shape. The owner? Of course he was surly; wouldn't you be, stuck in a hot bunker while everyone else was swimming? The kiosk has now been converted into an oyster and semillon bar owned by a wealthy family from Woollahra. Kids can still order an ice-block, of course, but it's called "lemon sorbet on a stick" and costs $13.50.
  • Clothes shops with no choice. Short sleeves or long? Blue or khaki? A pair of pants to go with it? Short or long? Whole shopping trip: 10 minutes. Brilliant!
  • Cake shops with no choice. Vanilla slice or lamington. I'll have one of each, thanks.
  • A barber who made you look like an axe murderer. Sure, he was a menace with a pair of scissors but his shop did boast the world's biggest collection of decade-old copies of The Australasian Post.

So farewell to the old Australia and hooray to the new. Let us take fond memories of each when we are all finally interred, perhaps in Stonequarry Cemetery up on Golspie Road, where the views are fine and the grass now seems forever green.

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, April 7, 2012.

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