After the Gold Rush
The upside of arriving at night is the surprise of dawn, or, as my children did not bounce in to greet me in the half light of the waking day, the surprise of late morning. Bright sunshine flooded a room otherwise filled with heavy French furniture and slightly teacherly notes about wet clothes on beds and not retuning the TV. The view from the window suggests that Castlemaine sits in a bowl as the horizon was ringed with trees. The surprise of clear distance, a very different view from the back fences and streetlights of home.
Daylight allowed Castlemaine to show another face. At night the grid of streets had been simply convenient, now the straight streets' sharp corners allowed us to see the town in long views. The buildings seemed strangely grand for what is really just a small country town. Deep shaded balconies ringed the upper floors of many buildings and a number of shops seemed overly grand. Castlemaine is a town with a past, and that past ran with gold. The hills, creeks and quartz veins that surround the town once supported a gold rush of world scale. Gold fever expanded the town and the revenue paid for the grand buildings.
During the life of these fields enough gold was won from the ground to run the “War on Terror” for a month. This is not meant to suggest that this was a small amount of gold, for that is not the case. The rivers of money that built substantial towns like Castlemaine and Bendigo now flow elsewhere, and I suspect that the legacy of that money may be less long lived. Like many other Australian towns Castlemaine was asked to give up its young men to a foreign war - just as small country towns and wounded communities are doing today for another war. Outside the RSL you can see the memorials and spoils. Artillery pieces from both world wars, and smaller plaques to the savage little wars of peace. The spoils - German guns from WWI were placed away from the main street, while the decommissioned Australian guns from WWII were front and centre. Only a few years separated these wars, these guns, and it is frightening to think that under slightly different circumstances they would have been aiming at each other. Soldiers from small towns with names largely ignored by the sweep of history intent on destruction. With a sun bright sky overhead it really is hard to comprehend what these guns actually mean, what they were actually built for.
In the afternoon we headed for Bendigo, another gold town, but with a mining industry that is still alive. The economics of gold mining here are balanced on a very fine edge. Gold prices fall and the mines are in trouble. In the past gold was won with such abundance and such relative ease that huge fortunes were made. Bendigo is Castlemaine’s big brother, but they share a liking for flamboyant buildings and symbols. In the middle of town Queen Victoria looks down on the passing crowd and behind her the spire of a church marks the horizon. Here in country Australia we have a vista dominated by church and state, both looking back to the other side of the world. The buildings have lions and fine detail, and without any surprise, there is a large war memorial.
There was an exhibition in Bendigo of paintings by McCubbin, one of a group of Australian impressionist painters who were amongst the first artists to see Australia for what it was. It was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly the pictures themselves were wonderful, full of real colour and distance. They looked like Australia. Prior to these paintings Australian landscapes had looked like England, but with gum trees. This group of artists looked and saw in a different way to those who were before them. I suppose you could say that they paid closer attention to what they were seeing than to what they had been taught. That does not seem a bad idea!