One Pub Town

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).

The former “Post Office Hotel”, Oxley Street, Bourke
Port Of Bourke Hotel, formerly The Royal

“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.

Diggers, formerly The Oxley Club

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.

The dance floor at The Oxley Club has become part of the broader restaurant space. This was also the place where movies were screened on Sunday nights. Famously, I remember the weekend where “Dirty Dancing” was screened so many times over a weekend, the film eventually “melted” before our eyes.

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.

Oxley Street, Bourke

“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.

Though the clothing store across the road, Culhane’s has now closed (it’s still a clothing store, but with a different name), it was nice to see Trev Randall’s newsagency still operates. The newsagency was also where I used to buy records. These days, the newspaper section is tiny, and souvenirs and toys have replaced the records.

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”.

Saturday night traffic in Bourke

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.

8 Replies to “One Pub Town”

  1. What a great post.
    There was a bare topped and in tight footy shorts shaggy haired Aboriginal man on a tram I caught yesterday, the first tram I have caught for months. He was minding his own business, busy on his phone and along with trying not to stare at his semi naked body, I felt a sense of unease and discomfort. That was quite simply pure racism. I judged him because of his colour (and ok, perhaps being semi naked on a tram).
    Country pubs hey. Someone should write a book, and someone probably has and you may have interviewed them.
    Among the happiest times in your life……hmmm.
    You have to be of a certain age to remember seeing a film melt. I saw it only once and it was just before digital.

    1. You’re right about a book about country pubs. I’m sure there are a few out there. And if not, they should do it soon. The closure of many pubs has meant the licences (both alcohol and poker machines) have been snapped up by hotels in the larger regional centres and cities.

  2. This is exactly why I love trawling the Reader, because I get to read great posts like this and learn about experiences I wouldn’t have been able to see otherwise. Loved this post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hello James,
    I enjoyed reading this post and your memories of your time in Bourke and the changing fortunes of a country town. I’m sure there are hundreds of towns just like Bourke all across the country. It’s a little bit sad that many of these towns have seen their glory days with many of the younger generations moving to the costal cities for education and employment opportunities. Still it is heartening to see the resilience of those who remain and work so hard to produce the food that graces our tables, and also those who are there to support them in many different ways.
    I love watching Back Roads with Heather Ewart and the stories of regional Australia that she brings us. They are wonderful.
    I’ve never been to Bourke or anywhere in NSW west of the Divide except to a handful of towns right on the Murray. Perhaps it’s time I took a road trip of my own as travel abroad seems a long way off. I’ve always been interested to see Broken Hill.
    Safe travels.

    1. Thanks Rod. Well it looks like regional people in Victoria could soon be on the move again, which must come as a welcome relief. Here in NSW it seems like a lot of people are doing exactly what we’re doing. A lot of accommodation is heavily booked right now (though that could be the school holidays). If there’s something good that’s come from this pandemic, it’s hopefully the rediscovery of some of the terrific places in country areas.

    1. Hi Denis great to hear from you!! I walked past the station and wanted to call in, but didn’t know if I could without knowing someone at the station. It won’t be another 20 years until I visit again. James

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