BOOKS: by Michael CasanovaNews Weekly
The Fields of Coleraine, by Frank Gardiner
, December 13, 2003
The Fields of Coleraine
by Frank Gardiner
Published by the author, 869 Riversdale Rd, Camberwell Vic 3124"Coleraine? Where is that? Victoria? Oh, country Victoria."
We live at a time when Australians, as well as some Americans, do not recognise much beyond their own limited sphere.
Australia is increasingly shaping itself to forget or count as unimportant anything outside the cities.The Fields of Coleraine
, however, is a book that will remind metro dwellers that there is a world beyond. It is a general history by a son of the district, Frank Gardiner, in which he brings together his detailed background knowledge of the town and the surrounding district.
It is flavoured with his personal experience and familiarity with Coleraine people and events. Hard back, full of pictures, tables, reliable data and anecdotes, it begins with Coleraine's Euro-discovery in 1836.
Geoffrey Blainey writes the foreword: "When you read this history you realise that Coleraine was distinctive. A surprisingly wide variety of influential Australians had links to the town or its surrounding countryside."
The direct object of Gardiner's book is one town in particular, but indirectly it is a book about many towns, about decline and those disconcerting question marks that hang over many once thriving communities.
Geoffrey Blainey again: "A century ago there must have been a hundred or so Australian towns that were as large as Coleraine. In the depleted streets of the 1990s [Gardiner] observes the vacant business sites, remarking that the gaps were so many that the street resembled 'the mouth of a 7-year-old ewe'."
Thankfully the book does not conclude with the most recent years of Coleraine's history, because there is not much recent news to report which can brush away the inescapable impression of dismal decline. Chapter 9: peak time / dead time (1949-1974); Chapter 10: sleeping sickness (1975-2002).
Hope follows history in Gardiner's book, beginning with a positive postscript, 'Recovering the Future', reflecting on the problems and possibilities of Coleraine:
"Many questions need to be asked about the creeping demise of Coleraine. Some of the more important events attacking the vitality of the town over the last 35 years have been the closure of the butter factory, the discontinuation of the Hamilton-Coleraine rail link, the winding up of the Albion in 1974 and - we hope not the final nail in the coffin - the amalgamation of the Wannon Shire with the Greater Southern Grampians Shire.
"As well, the exponential decline of the wool and dairy industries has been the killer. Worse perhaps is the apparent inability of the district to come up with long term suitable substitutes for the lost income and reduction of the population, and the erosion of community confidence. Locals have lost day-to-day involvement in the form, shape, decisions of local government."
Gardiner has suggestions.
On wool: "The view of a knowledgeable AWU member is interesting. On a visit to the US, where wool is produced that is inferior to Australia's, he was surprised to learn how much more profitably the Americans can develop their inferior wool products. Why can't we do something similar, preferably right here in Coleraine, with its excellent quality wool."
On water: "In the 1970s there was spirited debate, principally between conservationists as to what to do with the Wannon: to seek to restore it as a flowing stream, though modest, or leave it pristine. Twenty years on and it is neither one nor the other, with too few caring ...
"My view is that the people of the immediate district ought to decide whether they should permit the particularly healthy winter flow of the river to continue on into the Glenelg, where the combined waters make their essentially wasteful passage to the sea at Port MacDonnell."
For lovers of Australia, The Fields of Coleraine
should bring into relief the question of what Australia is becoming: nothing but a few big cities, a land of impersonal, centralist monopolies and populations, singing on occasion songs of a different, more community natured Australia, yet simultaneously and with not one gram of guilt killing it.
Is it game over for a more decentralised, interesting Australia, with vibrant rural communities that have their own independent character, towns which are not mere footstools to Melbourne or Sydney?
There have been other more difficult, hopeless challenges, faced with insane optimism, and won. And the battle for rural revival is not so lonely: Japan, Europe and America actively govern their countries towards ensuring country towns thrive. Many city dwellers are stopping for a breather to consider the alternative to long commuter times and shrinking back yards.
Old loves and new affections exist; we simply need to be more assertive about the Australia we want.
As for Australia's politicians, let them see the advertisements staring them in the face: Position Vacant - loyal Australian prepared to take up common sense, certain to win vision and exercise leadership. Rewards: friendship and esteem from country and city.
When you've done for the moment with heavy thought about Australia's health and future, and you're after "a little nonsense now and then", take up The Fields of Coleraine
again in lighter fashion.
Geoffrey Blainey writes: "This is much more a social than a political history. Frank Gardiner describes the squatters and the convict shepherds who accompanied them, the free selectors running their tiny farms, and the rural and main street ways of life."
It's relaxing to read of such things as a Russian's qualified praise of Coleraine a hundred years ago: a veritably happy valley, though if you fall over a rabbit, you will strike three more before you hit the ground.