The Little Town That Couldn’t

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Saturday 7 February 2009.

We were looking for somewhere a bit cooler, anywhere really which would provide some respite from the heat. Marysville, I thought, only an hour and half away would be five degrees cooler immediately and that would only improve in the evening and at night. The cool change would come late in the day and on Sunday we might do the Three Lookouts walk and come back from the Falls through the tree ferns along the creek or, maybe if we were feeling adventurous, climb Sugarloaf and have a scramble along the Razorback in the Cathedrals …

The car’s thermometer said 47.5 when we turned right at Eltham towards Yarra Glen and the northerly had turned ugly. Scatters of small branches were frisking about on the road and landing on the car. From the lookout at Christmas Hills the Yarra Valley was grey brown with dust. The smoke cloud from Wandong had just become visible but it was well away over our left shoulders. Well away, and not in the direction we were travelling. We stopped at Tarrawarra to look at the art. The rammed earth walls of the gallery were startlingly hot to the touch, but the valley view framed by the northern glass wall was stable, unthreatening.

We had some late lunch at Healesville. The sun behind the smoke cloud over in the north-west had become photogenic, a disk of magenta. ‘Still a fair way away’, I said to a bloke watching as we came back out of the cafe onto the street. ‘Yeah maybe. But,’ he replied pointing, ‘have a look there. There’s another one’. And so there was, a new one, now to the north. But damp, temperate, green Marysville would be safe. That was its speciality. Despite being embedded in thick forest, it hadn’t been touched on Black Friday in 1939, nor Ash Wednesday in 1983.

The Black Spur was reassuringly itself, one of Victoria’s treasures with its long winding avenue of straight and tall mountain ash. The Fernshaw Reserve at its foot seemed cool and inviting and the car’s thermometer was dropping already. By the time we got to Dom Dom saddle it was down to 38, so comparatively cool we opened the car windows for relief. No smoke; therefore no fire. At Narbethong down the other side of the Spur, clusters of watchers were standing around chatting but they didn’t seem anxious.

We turned off right to Granton and there was a fire tanker filling up at the side of the road. We started talking about turning back, going home. Myrna did. But I thought there would be relief on the other side of the hill. A swim in the Marysville pool would be perfect.

About three kilometres from our destination we saw smoke to our left, low and slow, but there were licks of flame at its base, and it seemed sensible to get out of the way. There were other people whose business it is to control fire. Myrna put her foot down. We turned round. No panic. We just turned around and went back through the Granton hills, through Narbethong and up over the Spur.

On the way home we listened to Richard Stubbs on ABC local radio. Talking to those who had been affected by the fires in Horsham, Bendigo, Kilmore, Bunyip, he seemed audibly moved. We were glad that it was all so far away. But by the time we got to Coldstream there were dozens of small grass fires racing across the paddocks. The cool change with its associated wind change still hadn’t come. Once on the Eastern Freeway we were back in town, inviolate. We had left nature and its elements behind for the well-insulated version of life that most urban Victorians, most Victorians, live.

I rang Marysville’s Tower Motel the next morning to apologise for our no show and to explain the reason why. We would want to stay there again, as we had so many times in the past, and I wanted to make sure they understood. I got the owner’s mother. ‘It’s all gone’, she said. ‘All gone.’ ‘What’s gone?’ I asked. ‘The town. It’s all gone. Look at the television. The ABC. It’s all gone.’

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It must be 35 years since we began going to Marysville. It was a pig in a poke, a happy mistake, somewhere we chanced on that we thought might be painless and different to go with young children when you got fed up with the city. A bit of water, hills, trees, maybe snow in winter. 

Unknown.jpegI wrote that about nine years ago and as I remember now and I think correctly, the very first time I discovered Marysville was by going to a conference there, a retreat, a charette, an event designed to correct the problems of the world. That would make sense. That was one of the things Marysville was for, one of its primary purposes. We stayed at the pub (at left). It was cold. That would always make sense. 

The first time we arrived as a family it was Autumn, and the massive European trees were awash with colour. It seemed as though around every corner there was another vista, something brilliant to see, another clutch of picturesque houses, mostly elderly from an Australia that had passed, with extraordinary gardens, huge banks of rhododendrons and camellias. The main street: an avenue of elms, branches reaching into each other across the road, petrol bowsers from the 1940s, occasional pieces of mock Tudor, the pub, the Cumberland guest house with its brick salute to modern times … the town was an intriguing Antipodean version of southern England with a thin wash of colonial style surrounded, closely, by magnificent Australian bush. Everything was a walk, and every walk a pleasure.

In winter, Marysville was the dormitory for Lake Mountain, with Donna Buang, the nearest snow to Melbourne. The groomed trails, in summer like golfing fairways, were home to cross country skiers. But there was tobogganing and, as the snow reports say, ‘sight seeing’. You could walk to the top, turn left and in good weather catch glimpses of Buller and Stirling before completing the circuit through alpine moss beds and tors of quartz. Our kids saw their first snow up on the mountain. We kept going back.

Like Sorrento, Ferntree Gully, Daylesford and Lorne, it was a town that belonged to the guest house era, a day’s journey from the city to a version of nature both beautiful and civil, to a time before jet skis, offroad motor bikes and downhill racers, to places where people could just enjoy sitting quietly, with the hills or the sea and each other for company. It was a place for romance.

But in time cars became more common, more reliable, faster; the roads were improved to all-weather tarmac; and Marysville became a way-station on a day round trip rather than a destination in its own right. Visitors would stop at the Bakery for a cup of tea and country cakes verging on the epic, fuel up at the Mobil or visit Uncle Fred and Auntie Val’s lolly shop, not knowing that a couple of kilometres away at Island Hop or at the falls or in the beech forest along Lady Talbot Drive or a bit further on among the big trees at Cambarville were sites of sheer delight.

Over the decades the town stayed the same. Shop owners would come and go, but their enterprises varied only modestly. In essence little changed. It was home for loggers, for retirees, for casual workers who needed cheap housing, for people who serviced the still operating guest houses and other tourist accommodation. It was place to honeymoon (a most important destination for this), to take your corporate group for team-building exercises when you didn’t want distraction, to lie back and think.

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We found Fruit Salad Farm, down in a dip on the fringe of town, for a start because it was cheap, but also because it was simple in the extreme. It was a place you always slept well. The kids played their first Pooh sticks in the creek that ran through the property. I found my way through the thickets of a book there when I was stuck trying to write it anywhere else. Several times I spent time there trying to recover from a disease that no one could pin down. Chronic fatigue syndrome? Myalgic encephalomyelitis? Post-viral syndrome? I walked every day and usually after a week went home feeling better.

We ate dozens of times at the pub snug in the lounge near the fire, where the food was good, wine was cheap and the service unfailingly friendly. We have celebrated more elaborately in the dining room at Marylands Country House. On one memorable night we dined in an establishment up on the Woods Point Road, the only customers, perhaps for some time. We ate Swiss, we had stories, we swam in someone else’s nostalgia, and left with photos that we still have of a couple of feet of snow covering the town.

We watched the mud brick adventure happening in Kerami Crescent and the expensive but delightful fantasies occurring in Keppel’s Court and at the end of Murchison Street. There was the exquisitely judged bungalow at the junction of Barton Avenue and Murchison Street with the wonderful garden. A year ago, and as it happens in many days since, we were thinking about buying a property there — 28 Sedgwick Street, a big block with a 40 metre oak tree in the northern corner of a well-established garden with long lines of berry canes, and a small but cosy logger’s cabin with views north down the valley to Sugarloaf.

And now it’s gone. It’s all gone. You can talk about resilience and the spirit of the people and how we’ll fight back. All that. Terrible things have happened in these fires. Unlike some of my mates, I have lost no loved ones, no property, nothing tangible at all. I was just a tourist. But for now, and for these reasons, my heart is broken.

That was then. Nine years and three months ago.

* * * * * *

It was a fire like few others.

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A satellite image from the night of 7/2/09, and below from higher up earlier that day.

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From one side of this photo to the other is about 550km, all of eastern Victoria. That smoke is coming from the Kinglake/ Murrundindi / Marysville fire.

From the report of the Royal Commission into the Black Saturday Fires:

‘The wall of fire that burnt Marysville that night was over 140 metres high. It travelled at speeds of up to 120kmh, burned at 1,350C and created blasts of exploding gases that erupted in lateral pulses as large as 600 metres. The radiated heat alone was so fierce it was capable of killing people 400 metres away.’

IMG_0370.jpgDaryl Hull found shelter in this small lake next to the football oval where the residents had gathered. Giving evidence to the Royal Commission, he said:

‘The smoke suddenly got very thick and very very dark, the colour of charcoal, and was bubbling towards me over the lake. I knew the fire was about to hit and at that point I thought I might die. Then there was an explosion and everything was luminous orange, and embers began to shower down on me. The embers hissed as they hit the water around me. To take cover from the embers I ducked underneath the water. From under the water I could see the embers descending, like orange lights through green glass. I would surface for a breath, sheltering under the branch I had found, and then duck under the water again. When I surfaced I could see the school going up in flames in front of me. Those flames came across the surface of the water like a massive blowtorch.’

This was at 7.15pm. We had turned around about 3.30. 

Afterwards, a police sergeant said that the main street in Marysville had been destroyed: ‘The motel at one end of it partially exists. The bakery has survived. Don’t ask me how. Everything else is just nuked.’ Reports on 11 February estimated that around 100 of the town’s population of approximately 500 were believed to have perished, and that only ‘a dozen’ buildings were left. After a brief visit, Premier Brumby described the situation: ‘There’s no activity, there’s no people, there’s no buildings, there’s no birds, there’s no animals. Everything’s just gone.’

All but 14 of 590 houses and commercial buildings had been destroyed. (One of the painful things for the residents was that the town was declared ‘a crime scene’ because of the possibility of arson and entrance was forbidden to them or anyone else for six weeks.)

Just before the fire peaked several hundred people had gathered on the football oval and a very courageous and very lucky group of police guided them in convoy out the Buxton Rd to safety in Alexandra minutes before it became impassable and the roof really fell in.

Nonetheless, 173 people died in these fires, 39 in Marysville. Ken Rowe was one of them, a sometime colleague with whom I rarely agreed on professional matters but that didn’t interfere with our amiable relationship. Like a lot of the residents, he was transitioning up from the city to retire to his garden and trees in Hull Road.

David Sebald, the real estate agent, was another. We’d had quite a few conversations with him and his wife Marlene (who also died in the fires) about Sedgwick Street. He was excellent company, and a real enthusiast for Marysville, for a time its main booster. 

IMG_0371.jpgHe may have had a hand in two low impact bits of pre-Fires community tarting-up: the wisteria walk and the re-making au naturel of the gutters in Murchison St. Nice, but not decisive. But bear those in mind in terms of scale as we proceed.IMG_0358.jpg

He’d just had a new subdivision round Timber Jinker Place approved and was positive, excited, that the town was ‘on the verge of really taking off’.

* * * * * *

And that’s the thing about Marysville. In our time of contact with it, the town has always been on the verge — when it was in the mood anyway; more commonly it was to be found lying back on its haunches some distance from the verge, somnolent — of taking off. But it never did. For us, that was one of its chief attractions.

In the past it has had its moments.

Logging has been big. But what with one thing and another, including agitation by green types, the bottom fell out until there were just enough loggers left to sprinkle around the front bar of Keppel’s Alpine Hotel, the pub whose walls were decorated with photos of massive trees and spectacular feats of felling them. 20 km away in Cambarville, a former logging settlement, are stands of mountain ash which were more than 90m high. They’ve now been whacked by lightning and are a bit shorter, but they remain formidable, thrilling. There have been times when logging has mattered around here. But Marysville’s mill, Sund’s, closed years ago, the two at Narbethong more recently. Tourism became the go.

VJY2134.jpgThe five guest houses at their peak used to accommodate 500+ visitors; this in a town with a resident population in 2008 of 406. (Marylands above and below) However modern people no longer want to stay at guest houses. They don’t play croquet. They like BnBs with or without Air. And you might now go to Bali rather than Marysville for your honeymoon.

The Cumberland had been updated and was quite a solid proposition. We would go there for our version of luxury. It was right in the middle of the main street, which may have been to its advantage, and it did fair to good convention business. But it expired completely in the conflagration.

5519f86a-607c-41fa-93d6-6d1dc0fe9743.jpgThe Marylands’ drawcard shifted from the croquet lawn, the full-size pool table and the rather limited concrete swimming pool to gourmet-ish food and queen-size beds. But during our time it was always teetering, full of fond memories rather than paying customers. The Mary-lyn became a successful haven for semi-permanent residents over 50 and, pre-fires at least, was an important staple of the town’s economy. It was destroyed and hasn’t been replaced.

Every time we came another shop, another set of shops, was having a farewell sale, had already packed up and gone or had a new set of owners. We wished them all well, but like everyone else we never spent much money in them. 

VictorianCollections-medium.jpgCrossways, opposite the church at the T-intersection, has somehow stayed alive since the 1920s. This photo includes a large sign saying CABARET attached to its roof. CABARET. Unimaginable in Marysville.

The Bakery too was an exception. It just burst onto the scene, a new enterprise in a new building, and for years ran at full bore. Marysville is near two of the great motor bike rides in Victoria: the Black Spur and Reefton Spur, and on Sunday mornings the Bakery would be bulging at the seams with bikies hoeing into the prize-winning pies, vanilla slices and large mugs of country coffee. IMG_1814 (1).jpgThe verandah would be aswarm with flocks of the King and Crimson parrots memorialised in its doors.

The Motel did all right too. In fact, weirdly enough, the three buildings in the main street the fires didn’t destroy were the three steadily going concerns in town, Crossways, the Bakery and the motel. (The pub which was utterly flattened might be considered a fourth.) The church went.

The time had already come when there weren’t enough residents for a footy or even a netball team (the Marysville Villains of the past). Or a lot else. 

* * * * * *

We came back for the first time about nine months after the fires on the way back from the Alps to Melbourne. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to see what had happened, but we both were curious. Will Storr wrote a ‘one year after’ story for The Australian in which he says, ‘There’s nothing tender or poignant about this scene; there’s a violence in the razed spaces of Marysville. Even after all these months, its wounds are still raw and shocking and open.’ And at that time that’s exactly how it seemed to us.

The walks were gradually, very gradually, re-opened and we came back to do them. Some re-routing had occurred and, not only had they been tediously slow and manically cautious in restoring them, it felt a bit like they, whoever ‘they’ were, couldn’t leave well enough alone. But a new building went up here and there, a monster information centre and a palatial police station early in the piece, along with some really tinny new housing, more fire resistant presumably but ugly as sin. Most residents were off in portable cabins 3km out of town at ‘Camp Marysville’. I don’t know anything about that, but there is this feeling that the people or many of them who lived there had been isolated like refugees.

IMG_0353.jpgThe VIBE was built covering half the major block of Murchison Street where the pub and the Cumberland had been. To stay there, as we have, you need to schlep your bags about 100m from where you park your car. And I hate to say this but the reception area and the people who worked in it shrieked: Somewhere else, not here. We don’t belong. We want to be somewhere else.

It was suggested to us that the reason the building is so bad was that the architect had never been to Marysville. The documentary evidence is to the contrary. There were consultations with the residents. Can’t you just imagine them. A team of bright young things with orange shoes, no socks, tight black trousers and very sharp collarless shirts, up from the office in Docklands, blowing fluff in the face of a small recently traumatised group of 70 year-old Marysville stalwarts who had no idea what they were talking about. Because, truly, only art-speak is worse than architecture-speak.

Metier3 (!), the architects. They say:

We set out to re-establish the charm of an eclectic alpine village, by creating a fine-grained urban design response to enhance and rebuild the street. By taking cues from the local built character, materiality and rhythm of the streetscapes, the design’s visual and performative qualities are strengthened. [Check out the photo. Just how performatively fine-grained can you get?]

We now have the opportunity to recreate its charms in a contemporary fashion, and focus on rebuilding quality spaces that will cater for the needs of today and the future. Understanding these things, we have built up our design to reflect such elements as the individual dwelling rhythm of the streetscapes, the charred trunks of trees once burnt by wildfires and the snow on the adjacent ranges.

The conceptual response we have adopted in our design response, is one of figuratively rebuilding the streets — Murchison Street in particular, to create a fine-grained urban design that responds and reflects the town’s character. These elements present as individual buildings to Murchison Street, however are actually elongated ‘fingers’ of buildings that are connected to a delicate white-glazed walkway to create an holistic facility.

What is formally created, is a series of pure building volumes that remain unmistakably of this place. The simple shapes express a traditional alpine village, maintaining values while giving the downtown area archetype of the traditional house with pitch [sic] roof.

Construction was completed in early 2015, and the Hotel and Conference centre is the centrepiece of the town and surrounding shire.

And so as its ‘centrepiece’ — and that is unarguable — we have this horrible black elephant, a monument to misery with its blank-faced address to the street, dominating the built town. They might have visited Marysville but how could they have had no idea just how awful and out of keeping the finished building ($28m, partly funded by the Victorian government) would be.

It’s not just the look, or the fact that we have a team of architects who can’t tell the difference between a pitch roof and a pitched roof — it’s the functionality.

For example, you enter Radius, VIBE’s eating place, straight off the street. There is no vestibule or lobby. So on an icy night like the first time we ate there, every time someone came in or out of the giant door there would be a blast of cold air chilling all the diners sitting within 15 metres. The extractor fan over the cooking area wasn’t working effectively and the only way to get rid of the smoke, yes smoke, (smoke! might be to go with the charred tree trunks) was to open the door for through-flow of air. It was intermittently freezing. Last weekend, some years later, I noted this problem still seems to exist. 

It opened in February 2015; it was for sale May 2016. Asking price $13m. Marysville.

Unknown.jpegThe Kerami Manor and Day Spa with its commanding position on one of the hills overlooking the town is more successful. It knows where it is — built on the site first of Marymeadows Guesthouse (Eric Dowdle who built and owned these guest houses as a chain had a thing about naming), and then Kerami Lodge which, before the fires, was sliding downhill both literally and figuratively at an accelerating rate.

We haven’t stayed here. Prima facie, it looks bit fussy, but that might be just the right style — cosy, leather, magazines, flock wall paper, contemporary versions of chandeliers. The 35 people who have reviewed their stay on Travel Advisor have unanimously given it five stars.

But the bakery …IMG_1817 (1).jpg

Peak hour, Sunday breakfast. We were there a week ago celebrating our 45th wedding anniversary. The pies are probably still great but they stopped winning prizes in 2006. Or was that when the steam went out of the proprietor’s engine?IMG_1819.JPG

Fraga’s up the street was lively in its own Marysville-ian way.IMG_1871.JPG

images.jpegAnd The Duck Inn, the new pub, was a real find. Very well situated on the main drag, terrific food, great place to sit, cosy fire, excellent service. A real bright light on the horizon. One interesting thing was that the new baker in the bakery might have been Vietnamese, the person who checked us into the motel was Chinese and our hosts at the Duck Inn were assertively Korean. An Asian infusion might just be a launchpad for recovery.

 

Unknown-2.jpegThe new church is another success, a massive improvement on the old one (at left) which was a bit picturesque insofar as anyone noticed, but pretty much worn out. Marysville’s climate is quite hard on weatherboard as a building material.

The new one has great lines, a smart and easy entry with protection from the elements. It’s notable but nestles beautifully into its setting. In fact most things about it look just right.Unknown-1.jpeg

 

But is there anyone going to it?

* * * * * *
The thing that was striking about our recent visit was not the commercial building. We assume that will take care of itself and fall into a pattern probably very similar to that of the past 20 or 30 years. 
There was a lot more private housing than when we had been there last. $700m won in a class action against electricity provider SP AusNet in December 2016 has now been distributed. 
The gardens are coming back little by little. The preferred plantings are exotics, and autumn is on its way to becoming as colourful as it once was.
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IMG_0374.jpgThe view across the oval. With a couple of exceptions the new housing is still fairly unimaginative, fairly stock-standard suburban, rather than holiday resort inventive. But it has improved markedly from the first efforts of the recovery. 
One of the reasons for the slow pace of progress is the rigidity of the new building regulations applied after the Royal Commission: everything double-glazed, sealed against ember attack, no flammable cladding etc etc. This increased the cost of building, already suffering from having to cart everything over the Spur, by about 150-180%. (The Royal Commission did hear from experts who were emphatic that no building should ever occur again in Marysville.) Matthew Guy, as Planning Minister, relaxed these standards in 2014. (That’s a good example of the edges, the urgent matters set in stone, that get rubbed back over time after a disaster.)
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But the availability of building stock has had little effect on the number of permanent residents. Our main informant told us that it is about half what it was before the fires — meaning about 200. Lots (comparatively) of people are building, but they are building holiday homes. They ‘hardly ever come up here’. He lived in Buxton because he couldn’t afford to build in Marysville. There were 31 kids enrolled at the school immediately after the fires; there are now 50, enough for a going concern. But only just.
But it’s a luxury going concern. I might be way wrong about this but for its three classes it looks to have a dozen rooms. It does include a kinder on the same site but that’s in a separate — large — building. This is all set off by its proximity to a huge multi-purpose building, one purpose of which is to provide a multi-purpose room or rooms. Community Health is another. Dr Lachlan Fraser, Marysville’s health service, who was a figure in the firestorm is located there. (His story.) And then there are the change rooms/ club rooms. As I mentioned above it’s hard work trying to draw a footy team from a population of 200 skewed towards the elderly.
The Villains Objectives are to:

• facilitate the ‘importation’ of country football fixtures to Gallipoli Park over the next few years (in much the same way that Tasmania do with Hawthorn, albeit at the grass roots level)
• market Gallipoli Park as a regional venue of high quality that not only attracts imported football fixtures, but taps in to the financially lucrative football club pre season training camp market
• develop an Auskick centre for primary school aged children
• develop junior teams in a nearby league.

Not actually play there, but hope that someone else can use these magnificent club rooms.

IMG_0377.jpgAt country football games it is customary to nose cars up to the oval fence, all the better to honk after a goal. But I don’t know whether this car park will be much used. Ever. 
Just behind where I’m standing to take this photo is a substantial skate park. Up the hill next to the brand new ‘Men’s Shed’ the size and style of a three-bedroom home, is Marysville Youth Space, between them missing only ‘men’ and ‘youth’. The former Information Centre is being expanded to include another community space and an 80-seat theatrette as well as a smaller venue for watching the two films about Marysville available to visitors.
I don’t begrudge these facilities to Marysville for one instant, but what I’m looking at, what I feel I’m looking at, is buying shoes three sizes too big to grow into when the feet in question are actually shrinking. ‘Build it and they will come’ hasn’t been a principle that has defined life in Marysville.
The Royal Commission estimated the cost of the Black Saturday fires (in toto, there were many others besides Murundindi/ Marysville) at $4.3b. Insurance companies footed about one quarter of that bill; the state and federal governments made substantial contributions. The Red Cross bushfire appeal raised more than $372 million in total. This grew to over $400m during the period of disbursement. About 2/3 of these funds went on housing support, another big whack went on cleanup and recovery.
But money is not the issue. I had a feeling that we were looking at architectural attempts to assuage the guilt we feel about what happened to Marysville, and that those attempts are misguided. They miss the point of Marysville. They don’t understand cosiness, intimacy, romance. They don’t get the climate. They don’t know the meaning of a — controlled — open fire and the strange comfort of the smell of woodsmoke lingering in the mist. Fraga’s has got quilts stitched into its bench seats. Their impact might be subliminal, but they say where we are and what sort of people we are. We’re not off to Squaw Valley or Whistler. We’ve come over the Black Spur to a quieter time, and we don’t want a martini; we want a scone and a cup of tea. If we want more we’ll go down to the fire in the wall of the Duck Inn and have best sausages with creamy spud complemented with exceptional mashed peas and a glass of Yarra Valley red. And think we’re Christmas. Because we are.
So you might modify your school message. Currently:As a consequence (of the destruction wrought by the fires) our School, Pre School and Maternal Child Health Centre all combined/relocated to the same site to see what we have today – a proud and purposeful showcase of 21st century state of the art facilities, teaching and learning.’
I think I’d talk about care, personal interaction, affection; maybe the chance to use some of the facilities in the monster clubrooms but probably not. I’d talk about how our school provides shelter, as well as developing alertness and historical memory, how we are a calm family together like rural schools should be.
I came across this while I was thinking about this blog:
There is something miraculous about Marysville. On 7 February, 2009 it was at the heart of one of the worst bushfires in Victorian history. Most of the town and the surrounding bush was destroyed. Forty-five local residents died in the fires and it was estimated that nearly 90% of the town’s buildings – including the police station and the primary school – were destroyed. Yet four years later, while many of the trees are still blackened, the town has recovered. It looks modern and chic. The eucalypts are green with new shoots and the most obvious evidence of the devastation is the photographs which recall the day the town was destroyed. Marysville survives because of human tenacity, because it is a popular tourist destination and because it is beautifully located in a picturesque valley surrounded by heavily timbered mountains. The air is fresh and bracing and it is especially attractive when the flowers bloom in spring and the trees shed their leaves in autumn.
 
It’s a very well-intentioned puff piece, and it’s wrong. It’s missed it all, or most of it. It’s drive past material. That’s not what’s happening at Marysville. There isn’t anything miraculous about it. It will never be modern and chic. It will be itself, which is bigger and more interesting than that.
This came from another news article.
‘Bruce Ackerman, with his extraordinary portfolio of seats on local committees, has a remarkably well-informed perspective on the town’s structural recovery. “Initially, in the press release we said it would take two years, but I knew it would be five,” he says. “Then we educated people it would be five years, but I know it will be 10.” His assessment of the town’s spiritual recovery is starker yet. “Oh, we will never get over this,” he says. “Never, never, never.”‘
But we’re back. We still love it. Our hearts are true.
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Blog 99

e335b6cc53ad7431d5351305b28654f2.jpgGeelong by night

Yes. There are now 99 blogs on my website. On the 20th of January this year someone living in Canada where it was a Saturday and probably pretty cold, read 49 of them. Well … ‘read’, looked at, clicked the web address, spent a moment, ‘visited’. Some sets of statistics would allow me to know how much time this person had spent per click. However despite the welter of information available to me, that is missing. Nonetheless I suspect that because he or she went carefully through various series (apparently) it might have been more than a moment. 

Could that be because of their addictive quality? Mmmm. Yeah … probably. That’s my story. But even though in October last year someone from Malaysia seems to have either read one blog 62 times on the same day or be suffering from untameable chorea of the index finger, a hard-eyed analysis of the available data suggests that this has happened just the once.

But yes, there are 99 blogs which I have launched off into the ether. Each time there are some fairly predictable results, and just as often there are results which are well beyond my capacity to predict. It’s no news to say there’s a lot happening out there in the digital universe that is incomprehensible to the common man or woman.

* * * * *

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The purpose of preparing these blogs is not to deliver careless slights designed to undercut Geelong’s inexorable rise as an international powerhouse.

They began as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. Originally I circulated these by email in Word files accompanied by other files of photos. Sue Mann, Ms Digital Technology herself, pointed out that you, one, could do all this much more efficiently by using a blog shell and suggested WordPress, which is where you are right now. 

WordPress has its virtues. Unless you write to surfeit (which I do) it’s free, it’s pretty simple to use and incorporation of photos has improved recently. It also has its failings. The capacity to format is very limited. (See my ‘Contents‘ page for a good example of how things go wrong.) Just the one font for example; just the one text block. It huffs and puffs if you try to stuff too much into the one piece, and sometimes expires if you’re open too long which produces the familiar infuriating losses. 

But, and this is important, all my stuff is in here now. It’s not just that I’m old and failing or lazy. Moving to another format would be like shifting house. What happens, I wonder, if it goes down? Unless I take steps — steps in the fog, I don’t know what they are — I lose the lot I guess. And that would disappoint me.

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Sphinx Hotel, Thompson Rd, Geelong West (maybe Rippleside, but round there)

To return, my purposes: The blogs did begin as long-ish pieces of writing about travels. So they’re aides memoire, and they work very well like that. I am my most serious, consistent and appreciative reader. I am sometimes given pause by the way they ‘become’ the trip or the experience. If I go back to read my journals or look at all the photos I took I can find another story. But I don’t mind that. The finished articles are already the result of after-the-fact sitting down and thinking about what happened, going back over journal entries, collecting more information to try to make sense of puzzles and fill in gaps, and filching other relevant material and images from the internet. 

And then I publish. Or as we say these days, ‘share’. To ask why is to flip the lid off a well-populated can of worms. Why do we do publish? I suppose I want to show you what I’ve made/ to tell you what I’ve been doing or thinking about. Something like that. 

Unknown.jpegEven though there are bigger issues to be resolved here — how come everything on the internet is ‘free’? — it’s not to make money. Several unknown people have contacted me about ‘monetizing’ the site, but even if I wanted to there are so many reasons why that wouldn’t work. The most promising proposition would have yielded about $130 a year and I would have had to make some serious changes to what I wrote and wrote about, how often, how long and how it was set out. It might generate a vast new audience and produce $135 a year. Or I might as though by magic become Taylor Swift. But, hey, nice of them to think of me.

Do I want a vast new audience? Not really. In a resolutely old-fashioned way, I send notification by email to about 100 people I know, friends, relatives, contacts from the road. Maybe 40 of them read it and, although I hope not, it is quite possible that some find it annoying. But there’s always the bin. Bottom left. Easy.

Also in a resolutely old-fashioned way, most of them are not ‘followers’. Twenty people have chosen to be automatically notified by email when there is a new post; 15 others use WordPress and get a notification of anything new in their newsfeed. (There. Lost half my audience already with this dizzy sophistication.) As well as a couple of friends I know, these 15 include ‘Surviving Victim 2015’, ‘Angels of Passion’ and ‘The Riparian Times’. I have the idea that WordPress might be bunging random oddities into this list for the purposes of encouragement.

Brief pause for entertainment: Excitement at Geelong’s Eastern Beach.

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I don’t think I’m looking for approval although that, of course, is most welcome. In this primordial version of digital interaction, my readers rarely ‘like’ what they’ve read. But some, a few, are diligent commenters. Among this crew Joan Holt, Andy Webster and Jane Cav are the standouts. Some blogs draw more comment than others and I hazard for very differing reasons. The first blog about the death of Girin Flat might have reminded readers of their own experiences of the ’70s; The Knee might have garnered a sympathy vote; The Miracle pulled in the footy crowd; and The Nakasendo Trail (see below) is usually people asking me questions.

The most generous ‘comment’ has been a long email from Michel Faber who went to the trouble of providing a very thoughtful and positive response to ‘Dancing with Mr Su’ as well as a boxful of suggestions for copy edits. This, from the author of The Crimson Petal and the White, one the the 21st century’s really good books, made several of my days.

That’s what people do. They send me emails — emails not texts or tweets or likes or ‘comments’ — and we correspond. It’s the old days round here and one clear purpose is to keep in touch. 

But in terms of purpose, I’d say, beyond anything, it is just what I do and have been doing since I could, which is now a long time ago.

More fun at Eastern Beach

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What happens?

When I send out my notice very generally speaking 80-120 people visit the new blog that day, 45-60 the next day. It tails off after that. Generally speaking.

Supporting something the makers of soaps have long known, the blog about Mitzi and Simon’s wedding got 480 views in the 12 hours after it was posted. (How does that happen? Who are these people who want to look at the wedding of someone they’ve never met and never will? How do they find out?) The post about the Boat People was also comparatively popular, very quickly. One reason might have been that it was shorter than usual. I note that since my first blog was published on October 12, 2012 — ‘London’, the beginning of a trip to Europe — the number of blogs I write in a year has diminished but their average length has doubled. Could be a mistake. (TLDR. Look it up. It’s modern.) However, 180 people, about 175 more than I anticipated, have had a look at Dancing with Mr Su which is about 35,000 words. It was a pleasant surprise to find that there was a market even of that size for this precious set of 20-year old memories.

Someone looks at something every day, every single day! (it’s busy traffic out there), on average 18 times. A heap of this traffic, the considerable majority, is people looking at my blog on The Nakasendo Trail, the reason being that it has been hooked up to Oku Japan’s Facebook page. It has received 9997, 10,014, 10,017 hits since I wrote it in September 2013. This shows several things but primarily the power of Facebook (from which I abstain). 

I have gone back to read this blog lots of times a bit puzzled and vaguely wishing it was a bit less feeble. Maybe I could have tarted it up a bit more, filled out more of the detail.  But I also think these people could have been reading about the crisis of Catholicism as visible in the decorative effects of St Peter’s, or the distinctive religious sunglare of the epistle to the Ephesians. Far more interesting. But the excellent Adam Downham from Oku (who was good enough to meet up with us on Shikoku) has written: ‘Our team often point your blog out to guests curious as to what the trail is like; there’s no better honest description since the newspaper articles, as grateful as we are to have them, tend to speak in hyperbole.’

And I would never ever ever indulge in hyperbole. Never. Not even if the Five Horsemen of the Apocalypse rode in here right now. Six.

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The greatest number of hits in any one day (1744) came after a Croatian site, ‘Dubrovackidnevnik‘ (‘Dubrovnik Diary’) made reference to a small portion of Croatia: Don’s Party which with Bosnia: Not Don’s Party are two of my all-time favourites. A sort of half-hearted and confused umbrage had been taken to my comments about Dubrovnik, a sacred site on its promontory there in the Croatian consciousness.

‘A group of tourists recently published a report from Croatia on their blog, and about Dubrovnik had some criticism. ‘It is very beautiful from a distance. Up close it’s another old town with highly polished limestone streets, including the famous Stradun down its centre,’ the tourists wrote. The criticisms were directed at prices. Namely, tourists wrote that they paid a lot for the most common food. [in fact — ‘Dubrovnik didn’t have as many tat shops as Venice, but it had its share. We paid a lot for ordinary food. Despite its remarkable history as an independent and highly civilised state, we were at a tourist destination.’]

‘Most of the text on Dubrovnik is related to the Homeland War and the attacks by the JNA during the war years. ‘Why would anyone bomb the world heritage? Because of little attention or because you’re stupid. Or to see where you could go with it. Or simply because you do not care,” the tourists wrote. They also visited Cavtat, but they had only praise for it.’

You might be sharing something with your friends, you might think you’re just sharing something with your friends, but of course you’ve thrown yourself on the mercy of the digital cosmos. Once you put it up it’s in the ether, the heavily populated void where anything can and does happen.

I know that if there is a hit from Turkey, it’s probably Onur; Croatia, Don; India (when he’s there) Geoff; Poland, Marta. But today, let me look: 32 from the United States, 6 from Malaysia, 8 from Canada, three from Singapore, two from The Netherlands, one from the UK, and one from Serbia (and will they have read … yes they have … On Being Serbian. I bet they were completely mystified.) I have no idea who any of them are, nor what they are making of what they are reading.

The same is true of course of any author who publishes. However there are well developed gambits, advanced strategies, indeed whole inclinations designed to manage the issue. How much can we tell about Shakespeare’s precise nature or that of Jane Austen from what they wrote? Very little. They are extremely well-disguised; the work is the thing. (As a counterpoint we could always throw in Norman Mailer I guess.) But generally they don’t insert pictures of themselves and their close friends and relations for just anyone to contemplate, and for that matter in order to match the correspondence of text and pictorial evidence.

What’s with this willing abandonment of privacy? Is it perhaps unwitting? If ‘witting’ means ‘fully conscious and attentive’ then there might be something in that. You just do it. And compared with the Twitter wars and the complete abandonment of mannerly and civilised discourse in digital comment, I have got off scot-free. Scot-free. (Originally meaning exempt from Royal levies. Wonderful.) Maybe it’s a process of keeping your head just so high. Not very. Finding the sweet spot whereby you can imagine yourself as an authorial and public figure free to write what you like while retaining an illusion of privacy.

With this in mind, if you search ‘McRae’ or even ‘McRaeblog’ (which is most of the unique address of the site) you will go for dozens of pages before there’s any sign of it. However if you Google ‘Frognie Zila’, and why the hell would you, coming in at number six is this.

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And when you go there you will find what’s below, a photo I have taken included in a discussion of what was in Le Printemps in the French Quarter of Shanghai. Note: I have never pulled this out of the run of the blog, nor titled/captioned the photo nor in any other way given it an individual identifier. So how did that happen? Crrrrazy eh. frognie-zila.jpg

I did Google ‘Frognie Zila’ because I was getting so many hits on this as the entry point to my site. When you search, nearby you will find access to an article: ‘6 Bad Brand Names in China: Lessons from intertextuality’ (which includes the same photo, cropped but almost certainly pinched from my site) which says a number of useful things that I had only provided as implications.

Vladimir Djurovic in ‘Branding Mag’ writes: ‘From a purely verbal identity perspective, Chinese consumers have minimal recognition of the name (there is no Godzilla in Chinese culture; frog is not read as evidently as for a Western English speaker). This illuminates the importance of the underlying Chinese name as the verbal identity asset which carries brand equity in China, while the alphabetic name functions as a more visual asset and plays a lesser role in anchoring the memories and brand associations.’ (The other five dud names: ComeBuy; Lance From25; Helen Keller (a brand for spectacles!); Greenland Being Funny (for a shopping mall); and Biemlfdlkk. It is a worthy  but wordy article.)

All serious writing is palimpsest, and the internet is making it easier and more routine.

There now. That’s the educational function of this blog served.

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Geelong? Ah it’s just Geelong. I spent ages 1-8 there, and much as I wanted to, just not quite old enough to go off the wheel into the water at Eastern Beach (see pic above). It’s quiet down there at the other end of the Bay. If you use it as your blog’s yardstick, you can, you know, pump it up a bit. Like, help out.

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Palimpsest. A Footnote. (Another problem with WordPress: you can’t have proper footnotes. No ‘foot’ I suppose.) Originally: parchment or other writing material that the writing has been scrubbed or scraped off so it can be reused. In contemporary usage: something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form. In my mind: the building up of layers of borrowings and allusions to thicken out meaning.