The Town At the End of The World

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A couple of years ago I was asked to write a play; previous entries on this blog have referred to this. I Am A Lake is now coming to the end of its Launceston season and altogether it will have had nine performances here and in Queenstown, where it’s set. It premiered in Queenstown as part of The Unconformity, a biennial arts festival held there. The play is set in Queenstown, and I used to live in Queenstown.

That was in 1984-5; and back then, Queenstown very much felt like a town at the end of the world.

For various reasons, I didn’t have a great time. I won’t go into that now, but clearly the place had some effect on me–my novel The Blue Cathedral is set there and now so is the play. Psychologists would probably have a field day figuring out why, but I’m not all that interested in learning why–I could probably only guess anyway, not being a psychologist myself. Writers use their experience–an almost banal cliche, I know, but it will serve for now.

I found myself heading back to Queenstown with my family for the premiere of I Am A Lake and I commented to people on a few occasions that I was reasonably terrified by this prospect. Part of me felt that I had appropriated the town and its people for my work–and appropriation was on my mind after the recent Lionel Shriver opening address at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival. I am not of Queenstown; what am I doing laying it bare in my work? The play is not especially affectionate either; it’s central coming of age of story is a tender one tempered by revelations of appalling domestic violence which culminate in an act of manslaughter. It is bookended by tales of death–firstly of the (mostly) factual events surrounding the 1912 North Lyell Mine fire, and secondly of the (mostly) fictional story of a local character who is taunted by the town’s young children until one of them stumbles upon his suicide. So I had genuine reservations about what the good people of Queenstown would make of the role I had given their town. (As is turns out, these were unfounded; reception, as far as I know, was quite positive–the consensus seeming to be, ‘Well, that’s how the town was back then’. The play is set during the time I lived there.)

In returning to Queenstown now, though, I found a place in the midst of reluctant change. The Mt Lyell mine remains closed and is not likely to reopen in the foreseeable future; the documentary How to See Through Fog which aired at The Unconformity–in the school hall of St Joseph’s Primary School, which my sister attended way back then–provided a fascinating glimpse of a community having a major change forced upon it, and how it would cope.

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The Queen River flows through Queenstown; in the mid-1980s, its water was soupy grey, poisoned by decades of mine effluent.

It’s utterly exciting that one of the drivers of rejuvenation for Queenstown may well the The Unconformity itself, a cross-disciplinary arts festival that draws theatre, dance, installation, music and photography into a marvellous celebration of place. Queenstown is a place simply like no other; if Tasmania has a difficult post-colonial narrative fuelled by conservation on one hand and development on the other, Queenstown is where the hands applaud. Physically the town is reclaiming itself–trees have appeared on slopes that were barren for decades, again owing to prolonged mine activity (compounded by very high annual rainfall). But the scars remain, probably permanently, where the earth has been plundered for copper and iron ore and gold.

When I lived in Queenstown, there were two public primary schools (and the aforementioned St Josephs) and the high school I attended; about fifteen years ago the two primary schools closed and education became centralised at the high school, which became a K-12 District School and changed its name from Murray High to Mountain Heights. While I was in town for the festival I wandered around the former Central Primary School site, now abandoned and left to decay–local young’uns have smashed most of the windows and weeds grow out of the guttering, the classrooms abandoned and empty, the odd swirl of graffiti curling up over the walls.

The old Central Primary School site in Queenstown.

I happened across an unlocked door in my wanders. One of the rooms within is pictured above; next to it was another large space, perhaps used for assemblies when the school was operating, which was clearly now being used by a local artist as a studio. Finished works were neatly stacked against a wall, tables with paints and materials dotted around. Somehow it seemed perfectly appropriate that this otherwise unused space should now be used for making art.

I don’t dare to dream that making or celebrating art is what will keep the Town at the End of the World on the map, but I am fairly confident that it certainly won’t hurt. Organisers of The Unconformity have a six-year plan for the festival, incorporating events on an annual basis, and in a town reeling from the loss of its economic backbone the social and cultural value of this commitment cannot be underestimated.

On my last afternoon in Queenstown I walked up Spion Kop with my daughter. Almost right in the centre of town, this hill offers expansive lookouts over the houses and hills beyond; a structure representing a mine shaft headframe has been erected there, and I’m told that most Sunday mornings a bagpiper can be heard skirling away. Someone has inscribed little phrases into little plaques and left them in random places along the path to the top and I took a photo of one that I thought was especially apt.

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Art should, perhaps, be fearless. Artists should be fearless. The good people of Queenstown should be fearless. Things of value will always prevail.

Thanks for reading.