There’s a two pub stereotype for many small country towns in Australia: there’s the “popular pub” that everyone goes to, and there’s the “less popular pub” that sometimes struggles to stay open.
When I lived at Bourke, NSW in the late 1980s, there were several pubs, and most of them were pretty popular. There was “The Royal” which was the town’s upmarket pub, with a silver service dining area. At the other end of the scale, there was “The Post Office” (“The P.O”) which was mostly inhabited by the town’s Aboriginal population. Mostly, I socialised at “The Oxley Club”, the town’s answer to an RSL (Returned Services League).
As I walked down Oxley Street yesterday, by habit I kept to the opposite side of the street to The P.O. Though there was a degree of racism that meant there was an “Aboriginal Pub”, it was more the drunkeness and violence that had instilled this fear in me. “It was a pretty rough place”, a friend who still lives here, said to me, when I mentioned this to him. I don’t know when it happened, but The P.O. is now closed.
“The Royal” is no longer the “posh pub” in town, and has been re-named “The Port Of Bourke”. All of the other pubs have closed, including the famous “North Bourke Pub” and “The Carriers Arms” (where Henry Lawson spent a lot of his time while living here).
“I used to work here sometimes, doing the disco on a Friday night”, I said to the waiter at “The Oxley Club” (now re-named Diggers”). “Are you Disco Denis?”, he asked, a reference to a local man called Denis who used to run the disco, and who also volunteered at 2WEB, the radio station where I began my full-time radio career. “There’s Denis over there”, a friend pointed, as we drove around the street.
My memories of Friday and probably Saturday nights occasionally running the disco, but mostly just drinking and dancing with friends are vivid. At a time when there were racial tensions in the town, “The Oxley Club” was a place where everyone would come together for a fun time. Some of the biggest hit songs of the time were “Run To Paradise” by Choiboys, “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil and “The Only Way Is Up” by Yazz.
There are probably lots of home-based parties now where it occurs, but it seems to me there are no places left in Bourke where this happens in a licensed venue. A guy I used to know probably had something pretty exciting happening the other week, as photographs from his 50th dominate the social pages in the paper this week.
Although the Golf Club has also closed, the Bowling Club remains open, and they still have a terrific Chinese restaurant. A couple of us got some take-away on Friday night, and brought it back to the place where I’m staying, right across the road. Sadly. the adjoining tennis courts where I used to play Tuesday night social tennis (and then pop into the Bowlo for a few drinks) have also gone.
The main street of the town is now one-way, and there’s really only one pub that’s left open.
“The town has gone backwards in terms of population”, a few people have told me. “It’s probably a thousand people less than when you lived here. The millenium drought really had an impact”, one of them added.
As I’ve spoken to locals, they tell me a lot of people have moved to Dubbo. “I run into more people from Bourke when I go to Dubbo than when I walk down the street here”, one friend said.
When I lived here, there was lots of horticulture (citrus) and viticulture (mostly table grapes), but I haven’t seen much evidence of that this time around. There’s a multi-million dollar abatoir on the outskirts of town sitting vacant, and there are are lots of fields currently being sowed, with the hope of better times ahead.
I’m not seeking to write a negative review of the town in any sense of the word, I’m just putting down some of my thoughts as I’ve observed them, since being here. I really love this place, and wish the town and everyone living here all of the best for better times.
My two years in Bourke are amongst the happiest times of my life. I got my career start here, I made some great friendships (lasting to this day), and (as a man in his early 20s), I learned a lot about life.
“I can’t believe how much you remember about the place”, a friend said to me yesterday. “It’s not hard”, I told him, “…the memories are so incredibly vivid of a really wonderful, important part of my life”. Anyway, that’s all for now, “I’m heading off to meet a mate at the pub”.
Still to come : a post about going back to the radio station where my full-time radio career began; photographs from the Darling River, and some pretty awesome photographs from bushland and farming outside town.