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An indexical introduction to The Town by Shaun Prescott

By Julian R Murphy.

Review of The Town by Shaun Prescott

In a disappearing town in regional Australia I sit reading a newspaper. I sit on an uneven metal chair at an uneven metal table at the front of the town’s only bakery. A hot wind blows off the dry plains surrounding the town and I fight to fold my unruly newspaper down to a manageable size.

I read that an obscure Australian writer of fiction has been discovered by the publishing houses of the United Kingdom, Europe and North America. The Australian writer’s first novel is to be published across the world in the coming months and it is hoped that he will be catapulted to international stardom. Having read and very much enjoyed the novel, I am not sure that this particular writer desires international stardom. But that is not what worries me most. What leads me to get up from my chair in concern is the fear that foreign readers will not appreciate or worse, will deprecate, the particularly Australian features of the novel. Worse still, interventionist editors will Americanise or Anglicise the entire book such that it will no longer be set in a disappearing town of the Central West Region of New South Wales. Instead, everything will take place in the Mid-West of the United States or the quaint English countryside. Little can these distant editors appreciate the gulf separating our disappearing towns from theirs.

My Antipodean loyalties piqued, I resolve to index the provincial features of the book for the benefit of an interested reader who may never have visited the disappearing towns of inland Australia. For the ease of reference, I have indexed these items in the order in which they appear in the text. I trust that what follows will be of at least passing interest and that it may enrich the reader’s experience of this curious book.

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Big W: chain budget department store shunned by inner-city elites but popular amongst working-class families in urban centres and regional towns. Big W began in the 1960s in the town of Tamworth, around the same time as the Tamworth branch of the Modern Country Music Association held its first talent quest for Australian country musicians. That talent quest became an annual event and morphed into the Tamworth Country Music Festival, which is now the second biggest country music festival in the world (after Nashville). There is a significant overlap between the target demographics of Big W and Australian country music, but no one has yet been able to convincingly link this commonality to their shared roots in Tamworth. In any event, Tamworth Country Music Festival continues to grow while recently Big W has recorded significant trading losses, struggling to match the convenience and price of online retailers like Amazon. Big W’s main competition is K-Mart (see entry below).

Angus & Robertson: former chain bookstore, which also operated a publishing and printing business. The company had humble beginnings as a small Sydney bookshop opening in 1886. In addition to selling new and used books, the store originally published the work of local poets and novelists, including Henry Lawson and Stella Miles Franklin. For over a half-century, the bookstore also operated the Sydney Book Club, a lending library designed to facilitate self-education. Angus & Robertson expanded considerably beyond its first shopfront to become, by the early 2000s, a network of hundreds of stores across Australia. However, like many brick-and-mortar bookstores, Angus & Robertson was hit hard by the rise of online book sales and it has subsequently closed all of its physical shopfronts such that it now operates exclusively online. Straying far from its independent roots, the publishing arm of Angus & Robertson is now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s monolithic media company News Corp.

Sanity: chain music and entertainment store. With the rise of streaming services and illegal online downloads, Sanity has defied all expectations by surviving as a vendor of CDs and DVDs. The company has been closing stores in capital cities by opening new stores in smaller, regional towns. The apparent logic being that while Australia’s coastal elites are no longer buying CDs and DVDs, people in regional areas still prefer a physical product. That logic is holding, at least for now.

Bakers Delight: chain bakery, known for vast array of cheese-based savoury breads, including: cheese rolls, cheese and Vegemite rolls, cheese and bacon rolls, cheese and garlic rolls, cheese and tomato rolls, cheese and olive rolls, cheese and onion rolls – you get the picture.

Central West Region of New South Wales: unofficial name given to an area within the Australian state of New South Wales. The region is approximately 60,000 square kilometres (25,000 square miles) and is located between the Great Dividing (mountain) Range and the more arid regions of central Australia. The traditional Aboriginal owners of the land are the Wiradjuri people. The Wiradjuri had lived in this region for over 40,000 years before white settlement. When the first colonialists arrived in the early 1800s they declared the area unfit for white habitation. Today the region is home to some 200,000 people spread across farmland, small towns and population centres.

Woolworths: giant supermarket chain purportedly in competition with Australia’s other giant supermarket chain, Coles. Most famously, the two companies engage in “milk wars”, a practice of loss-leader selling of everyday items, like milk, to get customers through the doors. Despite the apparent competition, Woolworths and Coles are routinely accused of illegal anti- competitive behaviour including, most recently, a scandalous detergent price- fixing cartel. The duopoly has largely eradicated smaller supermarkets from Australian towns, except for the locally franchised supermarkets operated by the Independent Grocers of Australia (IGA). The perennial underdogs in the supermarket wars, visitors to IGA supermarkets may find linoleum peeling from the floor but they are also likely to find eclectic arrays of ethnic foods, and fruit that looks like real fruit, complete with bruises.

TAB: (Totaliser Agency Board) sports betting agency, originally established by the government in 1964 but privatised in the mid 1990s. Now owned by Tabcorp Holdings Limited, one of the largest publicly listed gaming companies in the world. Gambling addiction is acknowledged to be a significant social problem in Australia, especially for low-income families. Many people see Tabcorp and its competitors as profiting from the misery of poor Australians, but the industry is insulated from aggressive government regulation by virtue of the fact that gambling provides a huge portion of State tax revenue.

KENO: lottery-style gambling game often played at local sports betting agencies. Similarly depressing as the above.

KFC: presumably no explanation needed. An Australian town without KFC is, for some people, not a town worth living in. In the more sparsely populated parts of Australia, people have been known to drive three hours to their nearest KFC for a bucket of popcorn chicken. In addition to KFC, most small towns in Australia are home to multiple all-American “family restaurants”. These restaurants, however, are not all created equal and fast-food partisan loyalties have been known to divide families and end friendships. The outlets most commonly found are the seven that appear in this index: KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Subway, Dominos, Red Rooster and Pizza Haven.

Pizza Hut: see above entry for KFC.

McDonalds: see above entry for KFC.

TAFE: (technical and further education) vocational education institutions providing training in fields such as hospitality, construction and business. Australia is one of the most highly educated countries in the world and, perhaps for this reason, TAFE is sometimes looked down on by the educated elite. TAFE remains, however, an important bridge from secondary school to employment for many young people, particularly those from lower socio- economic backgrounds.

The Sydney Morning Herald: the major progressive newspaper of New South Wales and Australia’s oldest continually published newspaper. The Sydney Morning Herald is owned by Fairfax Media Holdings, which is in mortal combat with the earlier mentioned Murdoch-owned News Corp. News Corp publishes a number of conservative-leaning newspapers across Australia, most prominently the only daily national broadsheet – The Australian.

Paterson’s curse: invasive, poisonous weed capable of killing livestock with slow digestive systems, like horses, but also valued for providing hardy fodder in dry months for cattle and sheep. Apparently the plant derived its name from an early settler of eastern Australia – Jane Paterson – who brought it to the continent from Europe as an ornamental plant, only to see it spread cancerously into the local bushland. Also known, ironically, as Salvation Jane and by its botanical name echium plantagineum.

Clint’s Crazy Bargains: chain electrical store, now defunct, best remembered for its obnoxious television advertisements which featured seizure-inducing flashing animation and a screaming voiceover reciting the company’s much hated catchphrase, “It’s craaaaaaaazy!” Aside from its deliberately annoying (and it must be said, highly successful) advertising campaign, Clint’s was loved by many for its staff-first philosophy, encapsulated in the practice of providing lunch to all staff, from executives to truck drivers, at its warehouse in the working-class suburbs of western Sydney.

Channel Seven: commercial free-to-air television station mostly known for sport, law-and-order series and soap operas.

Coles: see above entry for Woolworths.

Pluto Pups: a hotdog, deep-fried and skewered. Essentially an Australian version of the U.S. corndog. Also known as a Dagwood Dog and a Dippy Dog. Once shunned by urban elites, now viewed as either ironically cool, or just plain delicious.

Icehouse: Australian rock band, formed in Sydney and originally performing under the name “Flowers” but forced to change their name for fear of infringing the copyright of a Scottish band also known as Flowers. Significant singles – of Icehouse, not Flowers – include “Electric Blue” (1987), which was co-written with John Oates of Hall & Oats fame, and “Great Southern Land” (1982), considered by many to be the anthem of Australian pub rock (see entry below).

Commonwealth Bank: major Australian bank, currently the subject of a Royal Commission into untoward practices in the banking industry, such as charging fees to people up to ten years after they had died. Other banks mired in controversy include Westpac and National Australia Bank.

BP: (British Petroleum) rapacious energy company.

Ampol: rapacious energy company.

Diggers: people engaged in the act of digging. Also affectionate label for Australian and New Zealand soldiers in World War I. An Australian Professor of Folklore has described the slang as “Diggerese”, a combination of workplace jargon and knowing argot. Australian Diggers are not to be confused with the radical agrarian communist Diggers of mid-17th Century England, who were an offshoot of the Levellers.

ANZAC day: (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps day) national public holiday falling on 25 April each year. The date commemorates the landing of Australian and New Zealand troops at Gallipoli in 1915 to fight against the Ottoman Empire. The Australian and New Zealand forces were thoroughly trounced by the Ottomans, which has led many to observe that Australia seems to take a particular pleasure in celebrating what is perhaps its most convincing military defeat.

Australia Day: national public holiday falling on 26 January each year marking the arrival of the first fleet of English to the continent (somewhat like Columbus Day in the United States). For a century, Australia Day was attended by a bacchanalia of anthem-singing, flag-waving, beer-swigging and copulation. Only recently has it dawned on many white Australians that 26 January 1788 also marks the commencement of our earnest efforts to erase the Indigenous people who first occupied this country. This belated but welcome epiphany has led some to label 26 January “Invasion Day” and to campaign to change the date of the national public holiday to something that can be celebrated by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Yellow Pages: hard-copy phone directory many thousands of pages long. Once found in every Australian home and every public telephone box. Now largely obsolete thanks to the Internet.

Westpac Bank: see above entry for Commonwealth Bank.

National Bank: (also known as NAB – National Australia Bank) see above entry for Commonwealth Bank.

Bunnings Warehouse: chain of home hardware stores found in almost every Australian town with a population of over 10,000 people. Well known and loved for the “authentic Australian feel” of its budget television commercials featuring store staff rather than actors. Bunnings’ major competitor is Mitre 10. Together, Bunnings and Mitre 10 are responsible for the Australia-wide decimation of small, family-run hardware stores, which has a certain sad irony to it given that Bunnings itself was started by two brothers as a family sawmilling business.

Subway: see above entry for KFC.

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth: found in many clubhouses in small Australian towns; less relics from a bygone era than continuing reminders of Australia’s lack of ambition to become truly independent of the mother country. In 2016 it was reported that more Australians strongly wanted to remain in the monarchy than wanted to leave it.

Moove cartons: flavoured milk drink. For reasons that are not entirely understood, flavoured milk appears to be consumed at significantly higher rates by blue-collar workers and by people in rural and regional areas. In the sparsely populated states of South Australia and the Northern Territory, people drink flavoured milk at twice the national rate.

Quarter Pounder: while an explanation is hardly necessary for this McDonalds burger it is worth mentioning that when, in 2009, McDonalds Australia stealthily reduced the size of its Quarter Pounder bun it was faced with a massive backlash. The attendant five cent reduction in the price of the burger was seen by many to be insufficient compensation for the lost burger enjoyment.

K-Mart: see above entry for Big W. K-Mart and Big W, along with Target, are the big fish in the budget department-store market. Dispiritingly, this duopoly maps perfectly onto the supermarket duopoly discussed above because Big W is owned by Woolworths and K-Mart is owned by Coles’ parent company.

Mitre 10: see above entry for Bunnings Warehouse.

Pizza Hut: see above entry for KFC.

McValue Meal: cheapest meal at McDonalds, although once upon a time it may not have been. In 2009 it was reported that McDonalds Australia was in the process of changing its pricing model so that products would be priced according to demand, rather than the cost of ingredients. The effect of this change was understood to mean that customers at busy McDonalds outlets (often in poorer neighbourhoods) would pay more for their McValue Meal. McDonalds denied that their price-modelling disparately impacted poor people.

IGA: see above entry for Woolworths.

Rivers Clothing store: chain budget clothing store well known and loved for its DIY advertising campaigns that feature daggy dads and low-budget design. The homey Australian feel of Rivers took something of a hit when reports emerged of impoverished Bangladeshi workers being physically and verbally abused in the sweatshops producing clothes for Rivers (and, it should be said, Coles and K-Mart – see above entries).

Dominos: see above entry for KFC.

Red Rooster: see above entry for KFC. In many small Australian towns, idle youths take pleasure in defacing Red Rooster signage by removing the “s”.

BWS: (Beer, Wine and Spirits) liquor store attached to Woolworths. See above entry for Woolworths.

Pizza Haven: see above entry for KFC.

Sanitarium: one of two companies in Australia’s one-time breakfast cereal war, the other being Kellogs. Sanitarium has something of an atypical corporate origin story. It was founded by Seventh-Day Adventist missionaries in the late 1800s in Melbourne as a producer of healthy, vegetarian food. The company is still owned by the Church and touts itself as having “advocated vegetarianism before it was trendy”. Sanitarium’s status as a religious-owned organisation allows it to avoid paying tax, much to the chagrin of its competitors.

Caltex: another rapacious energy company.

BI-LO: chain of supermarkets competing with the giants Woolworths and Coles. Recently bought out by IGA. See above entries for Woolworths, Coles and IGA.

Tooheys New: brand of Australian lager beer ubiquitous in New South Wales, especially in venues offering Keno (see entry above) or showing multiple screens of Australian sport. Provided the creative fuel for the pub rock music scene that produced such greats as Icehouse (see entry above) and Jimmy Barnes. Australia has a complicated relationship with beer. On the one hand, we pride ourselves on our copious consumption, pointing to the example of our former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who publically downed a “yard glass” of beer in 12 seconds while in office, breaking the world record at the time. On the other hand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to deny the contribution of beer to many of our social problems, such as road fatalities, domestic violence and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder in certain portions of the Indigenous population.

RSL: (Returned Serviceman’s League) veterans’ clubs found in most small towns across Australia. RSL clubs are open to the public and are popular with students and low wage workers because they offer cheap food and drinks. We owe our RSL clubs to past governments who thought that the most appropriate way to support our war heroes was to build a vast network of concrete bunkers offering cheap beer, fatty food and gambling.

Great Southern Land: best known song of the pub rock band Icehouse (see entry above). The first few verses give a sense of the whole:

Standing at the limit of an endless ocean
Stranded like a runaway, lost at sea 
City on a rainy day down in the harbour
Watching as the grey clouds shadow the bay
Looking everywhere ’cause I had to find you
This is not the way that I remember it here
Anyone will tell you its a prisoner island
Hidden in the summer for a million years

Great Southern Land, burned you black

So you look into the land and it will tell you a story
Story ’bout a journey ended long ago 
Listen to the motion of the wind in the mountains
Maybe you can hear them talking like I do 
“…they’re gonna betray you, they’re gonna forget you
Are you gonna let them take you over that way…”

 

Julian R Murphy

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Julian R Murphy lives in a disappearing town in the north of Australia. He spends his weekends reading the newspaper.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, September 27th, 2018.