Read PART 1 here.
PART 2 – Wirrabara Town Hall
An early Sunday afternoon in Wirrabara. My ears, still acclimatising to the quiet of the town following the Producers Market catch whatever comes into relief (however brief): the rustle of trees lining the main street pavement, the faint rumble of a car engine or distant machinery and the occasional twitter of birds. In spite of these sounds – both tangible and hidden – the overall impression of this place is a strangely uneasy, empty quiet.
I’m accustomed to this type of quiet. My hometown of Normanville on the Fleurieu Peninsula, which in spite of being more populous and fitfully vibrant during the warmer months, is partial to the same kind of mid-to-late afternoon lull. Since I’ve spent most of my adult life living in the city, it’s occasionally surprising to become enveloped by this quiet, whilst acutely aware one’s own presence (or agency) – marked out by the sound of shoes on gravel or the rustle of clothes. This is maybe one reason why we find streets, buildings and vehicles with a perceived human absence so disconcerting. Within this environment one becomes so much more aware of their own presence.
The Wirrabara Town Hall is rarely used these days. It is split into two main spaces – the original hall, built sometime in the early 20th Century and a small recreation hall with adjoining kitchen probably constructed sometime in the 1960’s. Within the smaller hall, there are shafts of golden sunlight spreading across the floor but the expected warmth is virtually non-existent. It is incredibly cold in this space, the adjoining foyer and larger hall. Within these cold, enclosed spaces and shut off from the empty main street of Wirrabara, it feels as though as I am a little further removed from the world.
A border of gold paint frames the stage of the main hall and deep blue and black velveteen curtains drape across the stage. Florescent lights and ceiling fans are suspended from a ceiling consisting of beautiful pressed tin panels. To the rear of the hall above the main doors is an elevated projection room. Overall, the hall is in immaculate condition – giving an impression that it’s hardly been used in a very long time. There are some indications that the hall may have been used recently – such as a box of children’s toys and books to the rear of the hall, however this is certainly an anomaly. Behind the curtains of the stage is an old piano (recently retuned – another indicator of recent visitors?), upon lifting the piano’s lid I notice its prominently chipped keys suggesting plenty of use over the years.
To the rear of the stage area is a large overhead speaker protruding from the rear wall and appearing to be fixed to a canvas petition. It’s a peculiar looking thing – a huge magnet and voice coil enclosed in a solid wooden box with a square shaped diaphragm. The wooden box has a sticker on it indicating that the speaker was purchased from ‘Benbow Amusements’ with ‘Gladstone’ written below (Gladstone is a town about 30km south of Wirrabara). It’s difficult to place the vintage of such a strange looking loudspeaker, though the 1940’s and 50’s come to mind.
I make a sound recording of the main Town Hall space, positioning the hand-held device on the lectern so as to capture the ambience of the space from the stage. The discrete buzz of fluorescent lights provide a hushed continuum as incidental sounds from the building and outer periphery materialise: the creak of the roof in the sun, a whisper of wind, the muffled trill of a magpie, a passing vehicle, an unidentifiable murmur, a rustle of trees.
It’s a quiet world out/in here.
Later this/next week: PART 3 – Wirrabara Forest and other locales.
A trip (back) to Wirrabara – July 2016, PART 1.
The parentheses in the title are intentional since I’d visited Wirrabara once before – some thirty years prior in either 1985 or 1986. Given such a considerable span of time has elapsed since my first visit, it seemed only appropriate to regard this as a second visit, but the first visit as an adult with the majority of my childhood memories lost to the chasm of the intervening years. It’s tricky attempting to consolidate disperate experiences like this.
For my first visit to Wirrabara the primary destination was the Wirrabara forest reserve (about 10km west of the township) where my dad was participating in an orientation sport event. I remember our 1970’s Ford Cortina station wagon, a blue tent and my younger brother being carried around by my mum in a harness. We were camped on the edge of a pine plantation – the spires of the tall dark trees towering up into an overcast sky. Sonic memories – from such a young age, as always – are harder to come by and are virtually non-existent.
So now in mid-July 2016 I found myself on route via Port Wakefield, Crystal Brook and Gladstone to my destination. The purpose of my visit was as part of a rec (i.e. research) visit as sound designer for Emma Beech’s Life Is Short and Long project, which has been joint facilitated and funded by Vitalstatistix and Country Arts SA. You can read about the project on Vital’s website, but in summary – and in Emma’s words – the work is described as “a performance installation created from three years of travel yarns and investigation of how people respond to crisis and change.” Wirrabara is one of three locations that Emma has spent time in – the others being Port Adelaide and Barcelona – conversing with locals and discussing how aspects of crisis and change have affected their lives.
Whereas communities in Barcelona and Port Adelaide have been primarily affected in recent years by the respective crises of the GFC and decline of local industry, Wirrabara’s crisis is more reflective of the plight of regional Australian communities in the 21st Century – affected by aspects of climate change, industrial decline and dwindling populations. The main street of Wirrabara now hosts a few functioning businesses, the remainder of properties (formerly cafes, specialty stores and restaurants) are now either vacant or have been sold as private residences. I remembered witnessing a similar situation in a nearby town I’d visited several times in 2013.
Peterborough, located approximately 50 km west of Wirrabara and situated near Goyder’s Line was once a thriving agricultural and industrial hub servicing local communities in the lower Flinders Rangers, whilst functioning as a crucial railway network between Port Augusta and Adelaide. Since the decommissioning of industrial railway services in the late-1980’s the town had since experienced a rapid decline in the intervening years, coupled with the dual-related factors of long droughts and a declining population. In 2013, the town looked broken and half-ruined – the main street had a handful of active businesses, the rest – similar to those of Wirrabara, save for a defunct bookstore and video rental outlet – were now empty and fading into the routine main street visage of threatened regional centres.
That familiar tableau was mirrored in several of the townships that I passed through on my way to Wirrabara – the burnt out pub in Locheil, visibly abandoned homesteads on the outskirts of Red Hill and several gutted petrol stations over a stretch of a hundred kilometres.
By contrast, my arrival in Wirrabara on a Sunday afternoon was characterised by activity, commerce and the sound of a lively community. Existence. I’d managed to arrive within the last half-hour of the Producers Market on the main street where locals sell their produce, knick-knacks and hang out with each other. It was probably the best possible way to arrive in a town that I’d been told was in considerable decline. There’s something particularly invigorating about withessing an event consisting of groups of people within such a small locale – voices and activity spill out into the street, inviting you to engage and participate. And so I found myself being instantly drawn to the markets with enthusiasm, eager to experience this community interacting with each other and see what the market was like. It was fleeting. No sooner than I’d arrived, the market was in the process of closing up and the eventual absence of people and activity couldn’t have been more striking – the emptiness and deadening quiet of this small town rapidly encompassed the space. What energy there was had dissipated.