The men who moil for gold

Thursday, 12 November 2009

OK, joke's over.
Which one of you scruffy bastards messed with the radio?

Pre-babies, I had a job that sent me once a year to Singapore. There was some high-falutin' title to go with the decent salary, but essentially my duties were to babysit drunken bankers, counsel tearful spats among my team and mediate between the egos of grown men. To recover, and taking advantage of my proximity to Oz, I would then fly down to see friends in Melbourne for four days before I went back to London.

My old friend Jane and her husband Charles set the bar for amazing hosting. Always a novel you've been longing to read next to the embracing soft pillows, and a thoughtful agenda to perfectly match your passions. In my case, morbid tours of early-settler graveyards followed by lengthy tastings at Yarra Vallery vineyards. Fabulous.

One visit, Jane took me on the most brilliant adventure. I did not know, though you well might, that between 1851 and the end of the 1860s, Victoria dominated the world's gold output. The population tripled over ten years as the gold rush called its siren song to men desperate to make, and lose, a fortune. Melbourne itself was deserted, run by the old, the infirm and women - 80% of the police force had left to join the treasure hunt. Towns sprang up overnight as immigrant adventurers came in their hundreds of thousands. Many died, digging ten metres below the surface in waist-high water, and many were killed. There was constant tension between the British and Irish and the 40,000 Chinese who battled daily for the chance to transform their lives. As well as squalor, hunger, abject poverty, exhorbitant prices for equipment and crippling taxes, there were also the outlaws. These fabulously-named men - Captain Thunderbolt, Boodong Jack - ambushed the poor exhausted sods who'd actually found gold and relieved them of their loot as they made their way back to civilisation. Fascinating times.

Most of the new towns were abandoned as quickly as they'd been erected. They're still there, looking for all the world like the sets of spaghetti Westerns. We arrived as night was falling, two smartly-dressed Scottish lasses with over-fertile imaginations, passing the long drive scaring ourselves shitless recounting every ghost story we knew. We stopped to use the dunny at a hotel. As it turned out, not a hotel but a knocking shop. And one still doing a roaring trade, thanks very much. It was pleasantly suggested we could put up or get out. At the next town, we were busted spying through the window of a masonic meeting. As shouts rang out, we ran to the car, chased by a probably dog, in cold retrospect slavering dingo and roared out of town. Proper cowboys we were. We drove in shaky silence through another completely deserted town, and as we exited past the graveyard, the radio came on in the car. Quiet, strange music. We looked accusingly at each other.

'Not funny. I know that was you.'
'I swear it wasn't. Did you do it?'
'Why the hell would I?'
'It's the sort of thing you'd find funny. Scaring other people.'

We bickered on and off till we found our hotel, where mercifully we just paid cash for our stay. We bickered through the long night of odd noises and constant visits from the landlord, fascinated by his weird guests and keen for us to try wine and pancakes at surreal hours. We bickered through the Ballarat Stockade, the beautiful Lindsay Museum (I recommend this film about him - Hugh Grant and some topless posh birds) and all the way back along the magnificent Great Ocean Road. On and off through a decade of babies, house moves, great laughs and great heartbreaks, we have returned to the theme, picking at it like a scab, each convinced the other has got away with a magnificent piss-take.

This Easter, on a windswept beach, surrounded by our children, we were still bickering.

Happy birthday Jane. It wasn't me.


  1. Brava E! Please keep them coming.

  2. Great story ! What a beautiful and thoughtful birthday present - lucky Jane

  3. Gail, in northern California12 November 2009 at 20:32

    Your stories are wonderful. Every one of your readers are going to be terribly spoiled, with insatiable appetites for more.

    My hope is you've just begun....

    Thank you.

  4. Heather - yup!
    James - thank you
    Anon - how kind. Hopefully she'll be shamed into confession now..
    Gail - what a generous comment, and yes, plenty more to come.

  5. "........but essentially my duties were to babysit drunken bankers, counsel tearful spats among my team and mediate between the egos of grown men....."

    I've either been the sitter or sittee most of my adult life!

  6. ADG - not sure we need to admit that in public?


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth