0

A Nissan Exa, Eagle Super Beer and The Farrell Flat pub

In 2007 the UN announced that our world population was now more urban than rural.

The migration had been happening for centuries and like many global trends it only travels from the abstract to confronting reality when viewed up close, and late on a Sunday I saw it in Farrell Flat.

I’d never been there, but it’s only a short drive from Polish Hill so off we went through Mintaro where the fire bucket was ablaze in the Magpie and Stump beer garden, and past the paddocks, tinting towards green under the winter sky.

With wide streets and snug old homes Farrell Flat is appealing. The primary school is the focal part of town, as schools should be, and the main drag’s inviting with rows of tidy shops sitting under gum trees.

Driving east there’s the tennis courts and golf course. While the fairways need rain, the black scrape of the 18th looks well-used and I peer into the clubhouse window for that wizened knot of golfers clunking their beers together before settling into their post-round ribbing of each other.

However, the school’s shut, permanently. As are the tennis and golf clubs. Every shop in town is empty. On the way in we spot the park where the once-celebrated dog trials were held, but the last of these was in 1996.

We stop to take a photo of a white Nissan Exa. It sits rusting in a yard. Two dogs bark at us. This Exa is missing several panels. I owned one from 1991 until 2003 and at the end my odometer was frozen on 297,000 kilometres.  

Check in the boot for bodies

In the middle of the pub’s front bar is a Harley. On a wall is a sign advertising Eagle Super which was last brewed in the 1990’s. Across from this there’s a montage of old photos featuring 1950’s Hollywood sirens like Marilyn Monroe.

Behind the bar is Chef, the publican. He is a chef by trade and is from Darwin. He owns the Harley, and tells us, “The pub gives me somewhere to live and pays for my food and fuel.” He adds that, “I can go for three or four days and not have a customer.”

I want to offer my sympathy, but more than the wide wooden bar separates us from Chef.

There’s a TV high in a corner however the screen is blank. There’s no music. I order a beer which is a Coopers stubby from the fridge. Kegs are long gone. Claire orders a brandy. It comes in a large tumbler.

Publican and customer high-five goes badly

At Chef’s suggestion we tour the pub and various silent sitting rooms as well as the guest bedrooms. Pausing in the large dining room I imagine a far-flung Saturday night with farmers, footballers and young families, all buzzing with laughter and talk of rainfall and the school fête and upcoming weddings. Late on this Sunday it’s dark and still. The fireplaces are cold.

There’s plenty of room for a beer garden too, but I see only weeds and dirt.

Back at the bar another couple is there. We chat about their day in the surrounding wineries like Pikes and Paulettes and where they’re from in Adelaide. Taking advantage of Farrell Flat’s free camping they’ve escaped with the caravan and left their teenage boys at home (one recovering from his private school formal).

Claire buys a bag of chips. Like the town and pub itself Chef seems as if his past was more optimistic than the present. He has a low opinion of the community’s future and its aged citizens.

No, the pub’s not haunted

Mintaro’s Magpie and Stump pub was closed for about a year before the current owners took over and reinvigorated it with spectacular success. Its publican told me that their first June long weekend they did over six hundred meals. It’s now a destination pub.

Drinks done we say our farewells to the campers and to Chef.

Outside in the twilight we take in the Farrell Flat silo art. It depicts a train under full steam as it hurtles along by a wheat crop and under an effervescent, purple sky.

The vitality and hope are striking, and I’d like to think that in this handsome hamlet life might imitate art, but just as with the relentless march of urbanisation, greater forces may have already spoken.

1

Grand Final 2016: Country Pubs and Club Sandwiches

magpie

A meandering drive north from Adelaide, the Clare Valley is among my favourite places on the planet. Lush hills host rows of Riesling and cabernet vines, and settlements are sprinkled about, appearing as English villages.

But allow me to be precise. The valley’s best town is Mintaro and in its centre is the superb Magpie and Stump Hotel (est.1851). I’ve minor affection for its architecture although leaning against its bar I first heard a publican say, “Another cup of tea, Vicar?” which amuses me more than it should.

Its beer garden is perfect: generous lawn, tables and chairs, swaying gum trees. Luxuriating in the Magpie and Stump’s faultlessness my lunch arrived: a club sandwich. Of all the cultural contributions of New York state, this, I’d argue, is its finest. How can one not love a club sandwich?

*

Following a voluntary diaspora during which our group lived variously in Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Gilgandra, we’re back in Clare for the long weekend. I love tradition, and am thrilled that this one’s returned after too many years.

The old world tone of our visit is enhanced by the medieval floods and tempests. Notwithstanding the problematic marvel of electricity Clare suffers continuing phone and internet outages, meaning we must pay cash for everything. It’s like 1974. My sideburns seem fluffier.

The footy’s approaching so I veer into a winery to collect some sparkling cabernet-shiraz. Despite his splendid location, and gentle days crafting gorgeous things, in our lengthy experience the vigneron remains the grumpiest man within a light-year. I creep in.

“G’day mate. How’s things?”

“Yeah, well, you know we haven’t had internet for three days. Can’t use EFTPOS. What do ya want?”

But there’s something endearing in his longitudinal consistency, and I wonder if it’s a performance, a learned expectation. With two bottles of Anastasia (90+points) under my arm, I retreat.

*

With the wife away for work in Noumea (yeah, I know!) wrangling the boys during the grand final is a challenge, but there’s a pub, the Taminga, just down the street from our digs. On the footpath we’re welcomed by a bouncing troika of red, white and blue balloons while the red and white pair flutters too. Inside is bright and the floorboards and exposed brickwork are stylish. There’s a kids’ playroom. The boys bolt. Sorted. We claim some barstools.

The match is underway. Flagging the impending tension, minutes and minutes pass without the opening score. Old mate Mozz and I watch and chat, exchanging news over our crisp ales. The Bulldogs hurl themselves into the contest, but we know Sydney is undeniably classy.

A footytrip of lads bursts into the Taminga. They’re all wearing nametags. My collective noun is wrong- it’s a buckshow. I ask the groom’s brother, “So, what’s the plan?”

He replies, “The top pub, the middle pub, the bottom pub.”

Brilliant. On this afternoon his exact words are repeated by other buckshow participants, in country towns across this wide, brown, occasionally soggy land.

The second quarter is colossal with lead changes and surging, ruthless football. After a week of apocalyptic storms, the sunlight bends through the windows like liquid straw. Three farmers are anchored at the bar, and I don’t think they lift their backsides all afternoon. Josh Kennedy rampages across the MCG like a pirate, like a Wall Street wolf.

As it’s grand final day (and Mum’s in the Pacific) I get the boys a lemonade and bag of chips. If it was 1974 and I’d a HQ ute parked out the front, they’d be in it with the AM radio on.

With the groom having enjoyed a costume change from Freddie Mercury to nondescript showgirl the buckshow invades the middle pub. Thanks to mine host half time also heralds happy hour, and like Black Caviar on the turn, Mozz starts to accelerate.

The final hour of the season is astonishing. During other deciders I’ve been neutral, but today demands that like the rest of the galaxy my red, white and blue scarf is on, at least metaphorically. The Bulldogs are tremendous, and now the Taminga becomes seismic.

And at the siren there’s Boyd and Johanissen and Picken and Beveridge and Murphy. The boys watched the last quarter with us, and they’re excited too. How could they not be? I’ve appreciated this grand final more than any since last century. 2016 will forever be talked about with wide smiles and damp eyes.

It’s a weekend of rebirth both in Footscray and up here in this patchwork valley of vineyards and fetching hamlets. I can’t wait for next year.

 

sandwich