Inland on the Grand Junction

The commitment of our political masters in Canberra to the 1700km, Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail project, after only 21 years of thinking about it, could not have been more timely. It’s given me the perfect excuse to delve more deeply, for the amusement and information of my small but perfectly formed audience, into the marvellous little book, Freeling’s Grand Junction Railway Companion, that Victoria Madden discovered on the internet.

Freeling second ed coverIn my piece Oh, what a Freeling! a couple of weeks ago I was more interested in the Companion as an ancestor of the Bradshaw’s railway guide books that Michael Portillo has been clutching to his breast these many years on TV. But now, in the context of Inland Rail, I’d like to take you on a journey through Freeling’s Companion and try to discern what bearing its descriptions of a brand new railway, one of the world’s first, might have on a new railway 180 years down the track in vastly different conditions on the other side of the world.

Inland rail mapInland Rail is an exclusively freight line being routed along 1200km of existing rights of way through Victoria and south-west New South Wales and 500km of new alignments through north-west NSW and south-west Queensland, which, amazingly, are yet to be settled although the project has been under study and restudy, debated, accepted and rejected for, as I say, two decades.

The Feds are proclaiming Inland Rail to be the Commonwealth’s biggest rail undertaking since the east-west Trans-Australia railway was completed 100 years ago this October. [It is beyond me why Canberra thinks this is something to be proud of, having left the States and private enterprise to link the country coast to coast, east-west and north-south, only putting in when politically expedient.] This 2017-18 Federal Budget has committed $6.4 billion of taxpayers’ money to be sent after the $900 million already scattered along the Inland Rail route. The first trains are supposed to be rolling along it by 2024-25.

Well, I won’t be camping by the line any time in that year waiting for the first double-stacked container train to come rumbling past, nor will I be expecting any change out of our 6-plus big ones. On the contrary, the record of governments building anything anywhere is one of delays and cost blowouts. If it happens in Switzerland, and it has, you can bet on it happening here.

But I don’t wish to add my voice to the naysayers. The Inland Rail project is clearly A Good Thing and should be pushed along. Indeed, the Federal Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation has already started on a couple of tricky bits of the line aimed at getting around the southern outskirts of Brisbane. The whole project is laid out in admirably simple detail at https://inlandrail.artc.com.au/.

double stack train

Meanwhile, the Canberra bureaucrats and politicians might like to get a feel for what it’s like to release the brakes on a new major railway – given that this has been an infrequent event in Australia in their lifetimes – by reading Freeling’s Grand Junction Companion, which can be downloaded from Google Books at that always politically popular amount, “no cost”. It is less than two centuries old and therefore relevant to a Government that thinks 100 years between projects is all right.

GJR statementPage 16 provides the mind concentrator. Here is set out a “Statement of Receipts and Expenditure to June 30th, 1837”, which details the capital structure and expenditure for building the 82½ miles of line between Birmingham and the junction with the Manchester-Liverpool railway, via Warrington [hello, Victoria]. A consortium of local businessmen, including George Stephenson, raised £1,512,150/0/4 and spent £1,472,811/4/5, if my additions and subtractions are correct. (I grew up with £sd but haven’t dealt with them since 1966, so I might be the odd penny or two out.). That is a cost per mile of £17,850, leaving the pence to take care of themselves.

By one method of calculation, based on per capita GDP, those costs today represent an expenditure of £1.64 billion, or £20 million per mile. Translated to today’s Australian dollars, that’s about $3 billion and $35 million per mile, or $22 million per kilometre. Compare that with Inland Rail’s $7.3 billion for the 1700km, or $4.3 million per kilometre. It’s a snip really – and unrealistic.

In Victoria last year, the Regional Rail Link between Melbourne and Geelong opened for business. This 47.5 km of double line track took seven years to build and cost, according to the State Government, $3.65 billion, or $77 million per kilometre. That’s right, nearly four times the cost per kilometre of the Grand Junction and nearly 20 times the committed expenditure on the Inland Rail line. I can hardly believe it myself.

One other comparison might be interesting. According to the authority I consulted, the £1.64 billion spend on the Grand Junction would have been worth about £5.6 billion (or nearly $10 billion) in today’s money to the British economy – i.e. about 3.4:1. The Victorian Government reckoned in 2010 the Regional Rail Link investment (then costed at $4.3 billion) would be worth $6.2 billion to the economy – or 1.44:1. Inland Rail is expected to boost the Australian economy by $16 billion over the next 50 years (yep, 50) – a ratio of 2.2:1.

These numbers are offered only as indicators. They are derived from British-based modelling for the Grand Junction, other unspecified models for the Australian projects and my always dodgy economic and arithmetic expertise; and of course, none of these projects is comparable one with the other, for a whole host of obvious reasons. But as my then 4-year-old grand-daughter told me: “Watch and learn.”

gjrmapIn 1837, the Grand Junction Railway traversed ancient populated territory with all the attendant vested interests that implies, encountering engineering problems railway builders were still learning about – the whole industry was only a decade old – and in 21st century Australia, Inland Rail is also crossing populated country – maybe only lightly for long distances but owned by someone nevertheless – and encountering logistical challenges, rather than engineering surprises.

Mr Freeling notes in his Companion that the 31 miles of the original Liverpool-Manchester railway – the first such main line in the world, it needs to be restated – in 1830 cost more than two-thirds of the expenditure on the nearly three times longer Grand Junction. He adds with evident feeling: “. . . an expenditure, be it recollected, not recklessly or carelessly incurred, but one which was necessary to obtain the experience and information which will now enable others to execute similar works at so great a reduction of cost. Every railroad company which may in future exist is infinitely indebted to the Liverpool and Manchester Company; and if the feelings and principles which regulate the actions of individuals towards each other, when their own affairs alone are concerned, could be brought to bear upon their operations when incorporated in public bodies, committees, boards, &c. &c, the proprietors of every railroad would contribute handsomely to a compensation fund, to repay some of the enormous expense incurred, in their experimental outlay, by the shareholders of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad.” Now there’s an idea!

Inland Rail has taken 21 years of lobbying; the men behind the Grand Junction campaigned for 10 and built for four. According to Freeling’s account, the idea was first proposed in 1823 as the Liverpool-Manchester project got going. That bid failed. Other backers tried again in 1826. That failed, too. More hopefuls revived the effort in 1830 as the Liverpool-Manchester line opened, took the project to Parliament finally in 1832 and on 6 May 1833 the legislation received Royal Assent, astounding Mr Freeling with the fact that this last push had cost nothing in lawyers’ fees. The line carried its first paying passengers on 4 July 1837.

This is a tremendous feat. In only four years the Grand Junction company built 82½ miles of railway, using principles and techniques pioneered over little more than the past decade and developing some of their own as they went. It can’t be emphasised enough – this was all new to the world.

Lawley-St-GJR

Lawley viaduct, Grand Junction Railway

Freeling’s Companion provides “a few facts”: “The reader who has accompanied us in our journey will, perhaps, scarcely be aware that he has passed one hundred excavations and embankments – yet such is the fact. In the formation of these, five millions five hundred thousand cubic yards of earth and stone have been cut and removed, three millions of which have been employed in the embankments; the remainder has, for the most part, been laid out for spoil, as described at page 26. In the Line there are about one hundred and nine thousand distinct rails, which rest on four hundred and thirty-six thousand chairs, which are supported by four hundred and thirty-six thousand blocks of stone. The Railway passes under one hundred bridges, two aqueducts, and through two tunnels; it passes over fifty bridges and five viaducts, the latter are stupendous erections. In the formation of the line upwards of forty-one million four hundred and forty thousand pounds of iron have been used for rails and chairs, and upwards of six hundred and fifty-six thousand nine hundred and forty cubic yards of stone for blocks to support them.”

As an example of the engineering difficulties, consider the case of the embankment in a bog 28½ miles from Birmingham: “Vast quantities of material disappeared at this spot, the men being employed six weeks in throwing in ballast. As it disappeared in the bog, the ground in the neighbouring field was observed to rise until, after a time, it exhibited the appearance of a huge fungus, of perhaps 200 yards circumference at the base. Perseverance did, however, overcome this difficulty, and I believe the bed of the Railroad is here as firm as any portion of the line, although the work men almost despaired of it; frequently, in the progress of the work, having finished an apparently firm and straight embankment at night, which in the morning had either totally disappeared or materially sunk.”

Every page of Freeling’s Companion carries a good story. The Grand Junction railway crossed lands occupied from prehistoric times, scenes of battles from the Britons to the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War, established estates of the nobility and the humbler properties and activities of the hoi polloi. Vested interests were strewn densely across the path, and Freeling is consumed with the value of property all along the line.

Everald Compton, who first proposed the inland freight line, might recognise Freeling’s account of the lobbying for the Grand Junction project. It exhibits, he says, “the difficulties which invariably attend the promotion of a public good, when opposed to private interest. It is too often to be regretted, that the chief opposition to the efforts of those public-spirited individuals who originate such works, arises from persons whose real interests are not affected, but whose temper or caprice raise up a host of evils which exist only in their perverted imaginations.”

Freeling also makes an acute observation about the changes railways were making in human perceptions and, allied with that, he foresees today’s major concerns: “At the 63rd mile post, when the river Sow is again seen approaching the railroad, and, by its quiet, silvery, slow meandering, contrasted with the rapidity of the carriages, forcibly reminds us of the singular change which a few years have made in our powers of migration.

astonviaduct

Aston viaduct, Grand Junction Railway

“In the landscape, however, a railroad is not so pleasing an object as the stream; and there are some who believe that for the conveyance of heavy merchandize, the question is still to be answered – will it ever be so economical a means of transport as a canal?”

About 11 miles out of Birmingham, “a fire has been burning in the earth for upwards of fifty years; it arises from a stratum of coal, 30 feet deep, and 4 thick, and it arose from the main strata having been cut from under it, which admits the air, and thus feeds the fire, which has defied every attempt which has been made to extinguish it”.

A little town in Staffordshire called Stone, Freeling says, has a curious origin: “Wolferus, king of Mercia, embraced Christianity after the death of his father, but relapsed to paganism; in which religion he educated his two sons, who, however, were converted, and became disciples of St. Chad, a zealous Christian ecclesiastic, Bishop of Lichfield, (afterwards canonized), which so incensed the king that he put them to death. The Saxons, as usual, formed a caern, by heaping stones over the bodies of the two princes, in commemoration of the dreadful act. Wolferus, after some time, was reconverted to Christianity, when he founded a monastery to expiate his crime; and his queen, Ermilda, the mother of the murdered princes, erected a nunnery over their tomb; a town gradually arose in the neighbourhood, which, in commemoration of the event, was called Stone.”

Crew old hall

Crewe Hall circa mid-19th century

Then there’s a sad and salutary tale of Crewe Hall, about 53 miles from Birmingham. The Hall is “a fine specimen of the singular style which prevailed at the commencement of the 18th century” and is “well worthy of a visit from the tourist”. However, the lord of the manor is not often in residence and the estate’s extensive grounds and woodlands [designed by Capability Brown] are overgrown and unkempt, for a reason “whereof popular tradition has not failed to ally with the marvellous”.

“Thus sayeth the peasantry, the truth whereof this deponent voucheth not,” Freeling writes. “The late Lord Crewe, it would appear, was addicted to the noble vice of betting, and laid so enormous a sum on a race between two grubs, that on losing it, this estate was obliged to be mortgaged for the payment; on his death, the present noble occupant did, with filial chivalry, allow the remaining portion of the debt to be paid out of the estate, which has hitherto caused him to live in comparative seclusion, without such an establishment as this pre-eminently English mansion would appear to demand.”

Will Inland Rail, as it proceeds along its leisurely Outback way, pass by similar tragic stories of certainties beaten, of flies crawling up a wall, of pennies flashing in the firelight? Maybe, but chances are there won’t be an Arthur Freeling sitting in a loco cab counting every kilometre post, noting every point of interest and telling the stories of the plains and hills, the towns and farms being crossed by Inland Rail’s massive trains of double-stacked containers carrying the goods of a world Freeling could not have imagined.

Perhaps there should be, so that when a latter-day Freeling encounters a significant place like Handsworth, 2½ miles from Birmingham, home to the Boulton & Watt steam engine plant, he could write in similar valedictory tones: “In the Church are two elegant monuments . . . to the memory of Mr. Boulton and Mr. Watt . . . whose fame rests . . . in the usefulness of their lives, and in the benefits their intellectual ardour has conferred upon mankind. As long as science is dear, as long as the steam-engine exhibits its gigantic powers to an admiring world, so long will their names be in the mouths and minds of mankind.”

NOTES

  1. Crewe Hall still exists today, as a hotel. Its history can be found here.  Crewe became one of the great railway junctions of Britain, and of course it should be recognised that much of what Freeling describes is now underneath or incorporated in the great conurbation of Birmingham. Wolverhampton, Walsall and Stoke are football clubs. Warrington (pace Victoria) belongs to the now combined cities of Liverpool-Manchester.
  2. English manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the Scottish engineer James Watt formed a partnership in 1775 to exploit Watt’s patented steam engine. This featured a separate condenser, which made much more efficient use of its fuel than the older Newcomen engine. The firm grew to be a major producer of steam engines in the 19th century and had a major role in the Industrial Revolution.
  3. There’s even a little something in Freeling’s Companion for the Wodehouseans among us. Fourteen miles west of Wolverhampton station, it notes, are the towns of Shifnall and Bridgenorth, in the county of Shropshire. Much later, followers of the Blamdings saga will have read that it was in the Bridgnorth, Shifnal and Albrighton Argus, with which is incorporated The Wheat Growers’ Intelligencer and Stock Breeders’ Gazeteer that the third successive victory of the Empress of Blandings at the Shropshire Agricultural Show was recorded, in verse no less.

Oh, what a Freeling!

For years now, in company with about half the world, I’ve been watching Michael Portillo on TV strutting in his peculiar gait around the railways of Europe and Britain, dressed in his absurd fluorescent jackets and clutching to his breast, like an old-time preacher man, an ancient copy of Bradshaw’s, the British railway bible. I daresay most viewers see this tome in Portillo’s hands as simply the tangible rationale for his messing about on trains, no more significant than a future space traveller using a Lonely Planet or Michelin guide from today to frame his exploration of the Earth as it was before the Great Interstellar War tore it apart.

But Bradshaw’s is much more than that. It is a key document in the library of everyone who’s serious about rail travel and its history, which includes those who like to babble on about Pacifics and Atlantics and that starring pair of the railway circus, Bo-Bo and Co-Co, but is by no means confined to them. Bradshaw’s, first published in 1839, less than a decade after the world’s first steam locomotive-powered passenger railway was opened between Manchester and Liverpool, demonstrates that the many disparate lines built by then were actually coming together to form a network which, if it kept expanding, would allow people to travel cheaply and quickly just about anywhere. The British invented rail travel and Bradshaw’s enabled everyone to take advantage of it.

And so, today, Bradshaw’s is taken for granted among those who study, or are simply interested in, the history of rail travel. Because it is ubiquitous it is assumed to be the first, possibly unique, railway travel guide. This, it has been made clear to me in recent days, is not the case.

On 17 April, I received a notification from Victoria Madden, my blogging friend in Warrington, Lancashire, that she had posted a piece titled Warrington’s Early Railways: Freeling’s Grand Junction Railway Companion (1838), which dealt with an old book she had discovered on Google Books describing, in what is now the time-honoured manner of railway guide books, the journey on the then brand-new railway linking Birmingham with the Liverpool-Manchester line through Victoria’s beloved Warrington. It also contains much arcane stuff about the early passenger railways but that’s not what really struck me.

The content and style of Freeling’s rail guide sections were so close to those of the two Bradshaw’s I have on my shelves (alas, they are modern facsimile copies, not originals which carry hefty price tags) that I started to check the timing. After all, 1838 was awfully soon after the dawn of the railway industry.

Let’s backtrack a little.

Bradshaw’s was first and foremost a passenger train timetable. It began by putting together in one place the schedules of all the railway lines in England, with regular updates as the industry grew and the lines connected and expanded. Eventually Bradshaw’s timetables covered all of the British Isles. (The idea was taken up in many countries, even as far away as Australia, where a Bradshaw’s was published in Victoria until after WWII. In true bushranger fashion, this had nothing to do with the British Bradshaw’s – the naughty colonials hijacked the name.) The first Bradshaw’s was annotated with bits of useful extra information but it was not a guide book – that came later.

I don’t know who actually invented the railway guide book but it must have been pretty close to the author of the Companion that Victoria uncovered, Arthur Freeling. I suppose there might have been a template already established for guide books as tourism had started to grow before the advent of the railways. Freeling’s Grand Junction Companion was actually his second such book – the first was a Companion to the Liverpool-Manchester railway, published in 1832 only two years after it had opened for traffic on 15 September 1830. If anyone got in ahead of that he must have been fairly slippy.

Freeling’s first Companion appears not to be available online but, as Victoria found, his second is and so the content and style of the first can be fairly inferred from that. The frontispiece of the second book states: “The Grand Junction Railway companion to Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham; and [a] guide containing an account of every thing worthy [of] the attention of the traveller upon the line; including a complete description of every part of the rail-road; of the noblemen or gentlemen’s seats which may be seen from it; and of the towns and villages of importance in its neighbourhood. Dedicated (by permission) to the chairman and directors of the Grand Junction Railway Company.”

Mr Freeling advertised in this book that he was also preparing Companions for nine other lines “&c. &c. &c.” Ambitiously, he added: “N.B.– Railway Companions for every other Line will be published, as soon as their state of progression will allow.” Railway development progressed rapidly all over England after 1830. The Grand Junction Railway, started in 1832 and opened in 1837, eventually linked the Liverpool-Manchester line through Birmingham to London and opened the way north to Scotland. Competition was fierce among railway promoters, and so it seems it was also among those who would explain these new phenomena and their environment to the populace at large.

Frontispieces of the rival Companions

Freeling complained in his Grand Junction Companion about the activities of a Mr Cornish who had published ahead of him in 1837 a Companion to that same route. Cornish’s work had compelled Freeling to rush into print earlier than he wanted. He all but accused Cornish of theft and plagiarism. Cornish’s volume is available on line and it is closely similar in style and content to Freeling’s. Given Freeling’s apparent groundbreaking volume on the Liverpool-Manchester railway, he seems prima facie to have a case.

Against Cornish anyway – also focusing on Freeling’s territory were Osborne’s and Drake’s guides, someone named R. Brooks, plus a Companion-style book by “J.W.W.” (left) who just on a swift glance seems to have mimicked Freeling, er, freely – compare “including a complete description of every part of the rail-road; of the noblemen or gentlemen’s seats which may be seen from it; and of the towns and villages of importance in its neighbourhood” (Freeling) and “Account of the Towns, Villages, and Gentlemen’s Seats Within Ten Miles of the Railroad” (JWW).

Freeling was a busy man. An internet search throws up a number of further railway companions he authored, plus other sorts of guide books – to etiquette, for example, and The Young Bride’s Book: Being Hints for Regulating the Conduct of Married Women (1839) which I gather is for husbands. (I think his advice might be a bit late for me.) But Freeling has pretty much disappeared from public consciousness. I have scoured my limited but not bad collection of railway histories and travel books and, as far as they are concerned, there was no other, only Bradshaw’s.

George Bradshaw, publisher of the eponymous timetable and guide books, was also a Lancashire lad. He got around a bit before he set up business in Manchester as a printer and cartographer. As Wikipedia tells it, “Bradshaw’s name was already known as the publisher of Bradshaw’s Maps of Inland Navigation, which detailed the canals of Lancashire and Yorkshire, when, on 19 October 1839, soon after the introduction of railways, his Manchester company published the world’s first compilation of railway timetables [and first national railway map]. The cloth-bound book was entitled Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables and Assistant to Railway Travelling . . . In 1840 the title was changed to Bradshaw’s Railway Companion . . .”

Companion? Well now, there’s something. I doubt this is an accident. The world of railways in the north of England was still small in 1840 and there can be little doubt the Liverpudlian Freeling and the Mancunian Bradshaw at least knew of each other, if not actually having met. In the 1838 second edition of Freeling’s Grand Trunk Companion, the advertisement at left appears among many at the back (these were not in the first edition, most probably because of Freeling’s rush to print) for “A General Railway Map” – this being “Bradshaw’s New Map of the Railways, &c., of England Wales and Scotland, reduced from the celebrated and highly accurate Ordnance Survey.” The ad was placed by Bradshaw’s Liverpool agent, Henry Lacey, “publisher of Freeling’s railway companions”.

I can’t find any explanation of why Bradshaw styled his annotated timetable book as a “companion” after only three months of publication but I don’t think I need to be a commercial genius to have a good guess. The arch-Quaker Bradshaw, who for religious reasons refused to label his books with the names of the months, decided his principles didn’t extend to passing-off. I imagine copyright and trade mark laws were rudimentary in those days and anyway my bush lawyer expertise tells me that even today Freeling could not have alienated the word “companion” for his exclusive use. So long as Bradshaw didn’t actually copy Freeling’s titles and style in full he was home free.

The genius that propelled Bradshaw’s to dominance was its national coverage. Travellers didn’t have to buy several books – they had it all in one: maps, timetables, useful information and, eventually, full guidance to (in Freeling’s words) “every thing worthy [of] the attention of the traveller upon the line”. The method and presentation are clearly modelled on those of Freeling. Such is the tragedy of invention and innovation. Who, for example, today knows the name and work of Nikola Tesla? And yet everybody uses alternating current, which he pioneered and which eventually overtook direct current, promoted by Thomas Edison, as the means of reticulated electricity supply. Edison is everywhere and Tesla is reduced to the name of a car and experiments with coils in school physics classes.

Bradshaw published his companions, updated at irregular intervals, until 1845, after which they were succeeded by his guide books. These reached their full flowering in 1860, after Bradshaw himself had died of cholera in Norway in 1853.

The guide books continued for more than a century before they went to the great siding in the sky in 1961 but, courtesy of M. Portillo Esq., the name is probably better known today than it ever was. With Bradshaw’s in hand – or, in the eastern US, the Appleton’s knock-off – this former Conservative politician has brought his best Cabinet minister manner to explaining how and why the railways changed everything.

I must confess, though, I’ve been getting a little frustrated with him as the latest 3000 episodes of Series 512 have been airing – on SBS free-to-air, but I’ll swear they’ve been around before on all 153 cable channels. He started out all right, getting on the tracks and showing us the trains and actually talking about them, their routes and their destinations. However, like Tootle, he’s gone off the rails at times. I can’t believe he’s run out of things about railways to show and tell – I have a bookcase full of material, if he’d like to borrow – but he must have or he wouldn’t indulge in the little stunts his producers have set up for him. I’ve seen him making biscuits in the ancient England-Scotland border town, Carlisle, when there’s an interesting station and historic junction to look at . . . and teetering halfway across a rope bridge on some moors somewhere miles from any train . . . and cruising on boats in the Lake Country and Switzerland . . . and swinging alarmingly on a fairground ride . . . etc etc (in Freeling style, &c).

What I’m saying is he’s gone all touristy. I should make allowances for the fact that, by the time the shows hit our screens Down Under, they’ve been through their umpteenth iteration and the order gets a bit mixed up. But back in medieval days when these Great [British, Continental, American] Railway[road] Journeys first found their way into public consciousness, it might be that he was in fact a tourist and only got into the train thing when the complaints from rail nerds like me rolled in. After all, he has been examining of late the railways’ role in prosecuting the Great War and, while he’s performed the odd little stunt, the shows have been admirably about his topic, and fascinating accordingly. Likewise the most recent episode about the first paying run of the resurrected Flying Scotsman.

This wonderful event occurred on 25 February 2016 – let’s see now, that would be a year and two months ago – and, courtesy of the ever-alert BBC, the film made it to British screens at express pace in January this year, that is to say 2017. We colonials got it only a scant three months later, having been delivered by fast clipper ship out of Tilbury Dock. All facetiousness aside, though, I have to say I enjoyed it immensely. It was one of Portillo’s best efforts – he did some nice interviews, was mightily chuffed at being interviewed himself as THE train expert and absolutely glowed in full schoolboy enthusiasm at being allowed on to the footplate of locomotive 60103 (this British Rail number having replaced the more familiar pre-World War II 4472).

Bradshaw’s was in hand as Portillo told us about the massive crowds that turned out at London King’s Cross to see the train off on its journey to the loco’s home at the National Rail Museum, York; the enthusiasts at every vantage point along the way; the enforced halt by trainspotters trespassing on the track; the loco’s need to take on water from a truck by the side of the line now that watering facilities essential to steam operation no longer exist; and, above all, the sheer joy of the whole experience.

I’m glad Bradshaw’s was there. In its red jacket, it’s an institution, too. Pity about Freeling.

 

Australia’s waste of energy

Usually I love government cock-ups because they demonstrate the limits of political power (see Malcolm of Nazareth) but the latest is the blackest of jokes and not much of a giggle. It has been building for 25 years and the punchline, when we get there, will bring the house down, maybe literally. Australians all, let us rejoice, for we have an emerging energy crisis – one completely of our own making and one completely, ridiculously, unnecessary.

Once upon a time not so long ago, Australia could boast, and did, of having abundant supplies of energy – coal and gas – available at a cost that gave us a competitive edge over most of the world. In the past 20 years we have squandered that position in pursuit of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Coal-fired baseload power stations have been closed and not replaced, costly gas-fuelled peaker generators installed and, above all, intermittent, so-called renewable electricity expanded. At the same time, exploration for gas and the methods of recovering the bounty known to exist have been banned outside Queensland (and even there restrictions are onerous).

So now South Australia, which feeds off Victorian generation, has regular blackouts, Victoria is closing down, the other states are reeling, high-value gas is in short supply domestically, the national electricity transmission network is increasingly unstable and the system is vulnerable to extreme (and sometimes not-so-extreme) events such as hot weather and high winds. The price of electricity – not just for our homes but, more importantly, for industry – has doubled in the past 10 years and shows no sign of abating. In a country blessed with an abundance of natural resources we have been reduced to rationing ourselves.

Not that any of the above is news. Every day, since the folly of our ways dawned on us in the wake of the storm that knocked out South Australia last year, politicians and commentators of all persuasions are engaged in a huge shouting match, as if that will make the whole debacle go away. Very few, if any, are advocating the single policy stroke that would open the way to a solution – abandonment of the carbon dioxide fetish and a return to rational electricity supply.

I nearly said the problem would be fixed “immediately”. But that’s not so. The situation has gone so far that it can’t be turned around “immediately”, even if the single stroke were taken. It is certain that new generation capacity needs to be built, and that takes time. My preference would be the most efficient coal-fired technology. Gas is too high value – simply burning it is a waste. Nuclear is still too expensive for Australia. And everything else, apart from hydro, is pretty well useless for anything other than specific small-scale applications. The renewables fans can bleat and moan about it as much as they like but those are the facts.

Renewables are unreliable. That’s not news, either. But there’s more to reliability than being able to turn on the lights whenever you want. Renewables do not deliver steady electrical power – the current tends to fluctuate, mostly not much, sometimes a lot and sometimes it stops altogether. Even if generation is continuous, renewables electricity is unreliable for many of the hi-tech purposes of our world today. Worse, the increasing penetration of renewables into electricity grids is destabilising those grids. The power they deliver is intermittent – that is, they don’t produce when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine – making grid management difficult and at times problematic.

Therefore, as well as restoring good old, relatively cheap and reliable coal-generated power to our systems, we need to think about not just the “quantity” of that electricity but also the “quality”. The energy crisis gives us the opportunity to do just that. If the system were untroubled, if prices were still competitive, probably nobody would even bother. But we have a rebuild job to do and what better time is there to insert some quality controls into technology that is fundamentally the same as it was a century or more ago?

Our 20th century electricity supply system has been on a collision course with the 21st century (and beyond) ever since we decided to hand over management of just about everything to computers. We simply cannot do without electricity of the highest quality. We need to dress the system up to the nines. By that I mean ensuring electricity reaches consumers – big and small – without interruption or even significant fluctuation as close to 100 per cent of the time as we can get.

It will be no use restoring the quantity of supply to pre-madness levels if we don’t also aim at least at what’s known as “five nines”. In simple terms, if you have “five nines” you can rely on your power supply for 99.999 per cent of the time. That is, you can have a total outage time of 5.26 minutes a year. No, not new – I was introduced to the concept sometime around the turn of the century so it was probably fairly old by then as well. Mains electricity at the time was classified as 99.9 per cent reliable (8.76 hours out a year) – and, as far as I am aware, still is.

Well, so what? “Three nines” is pretty good, isn’t it? If everything you used were 99.9 per cent reliable, you’d think you were as close to perfection as a human could get, wouldn’t you? The truth is that at this point most of us in our personal lives do not, most of the time anyway, need five nines. Lights sometimes flicker and then shine on. Maybe the fridge misses a beat. It’s frustrating to be making a transaction online, or researching something, and the system blinks, things go haywire, stuff you haven’t saved gets lost and you have to start again. But you just shrug, don’t you, and get on with it. These little glitches are like the weather – can’t do anything about them, so you accommodate yourself to them.

And that’s fine for you and me (as I say, most of the time). What happens, though, when a giant government agency has a blink? What if the sat-nav system piloting your plane to Bali takes a mini-nap? Frankly, I don’t know and I am not about to try explaining how they cope. That’s not the point. The thing to realise is that Australia’s emerging energy crisis has ramifications beyond the lights going out, your frozen food melting away and your reverse cycle air conditioners sitting useless on the wall.

I’ve focused on Australia for obvious reasons but the general thrust applies to every advanced industrial nation. I dug out of my archives an article from The Economist of 2001 and this was its take on the future (i.e. now):

“When the economy was built around incandescent bulbs and electric motors, three nines was more than enough to keep the wheels of industry turning. But microprocessor-based controls and computer networks demand at least 99.9999% reliability, or “six nines”, amounting to no more than a few seconds of allowable outages a year. And that is just a start. [A report being used by the magazine] estimates that the quality of electrical power must reach “nine nines” – milliseconds of faults a year – before the digital economy can truly have the right quality power to mature.”

The Economist was optimistic about hi-tech solutions to the hi-tech problems and I’ve no doubt these have progressed amazingly in the past 15-16 years. But I’ve equally no doubt that the main tools in the quest for reliable power are built-in redundancies in the supply system and better batteries to ensure “uninterruptible power”. It was my involvement with a company developing a new battery that raised my consciousness to the nines, albeit only five rather than The Economist’s six or the ultimate nine.

Leave aside the needs of industry and the broad economy, ask yourself these questions about your own personal economy:

How much of the data you use to run your daily life is stored electronically?
How much of it is in your personal computer/s, including your phone?
How much of it is stored by Government agencies and the service supply companies your household uses?
How much of it is “in the cloud” – i.e. in the servers of Microsoft or Google or Apple or Facebook or . . . whatever?
What happens if any of these entities has a glitch, even just a small one. Don’t even think about a breakdown.
What happens if the World Wide Web becomes compromised?
Do you know?

The answer is no, you don’t and I don’t and nobody does. What we do know, though, is that everything we do today depends on electricity – three-nines electricity, when the need is for five-nines and the aspiration is for nine-nines.

I can’t help in this context recalling the flight of Apollo 13 in 1970. Three astronauts headed off for the moon on far less computer power than each of us carries today in his pocket. On the way out, the electricity source blew up and for the duration of their journey they were essentially without power. They could not use their computer systems, minimal though they were compared with today. They were reduced to making calculations with a slide rule, a pencil and paper. As we know, they made it back home. The newsroom I was working in at the time monitored every minute of that flight and I can tell you it was a close run thing, closer even than Ron Howard’s movie.

How confident are you, really, that Spaceship You, Spaceship Australia and, indeed, Spaceship Earth would get through an Apollo 13 energy crisis?

Exsanguinated exasperation

Honestly I didn’t know – or rather, I didn’t bloody know: there’s a strong positive correlation between swearing and honesty. It seems all that swearing in the media that I complained about a while back is just plain speaking. Who’d-a-thunkit?

I need to get with the program, especially since I’ve just made a rare visit to the theatre to see The Book of Mormon. The show starts with an athletic instruction to God that only He, She or It, being omnipotent, could pull off . . . and goes on from there. When it comes to profanity the authors of this festival of obscenity and blasphemy are world champions, as their TV cartoon, South Park, continues to demonstrate.

But it’s all right. Messrs Parker and Stone are telling truth to their audiences. They must be, or else you might think they’re using taboo words and situations to gain a few cheap laughs.

I’m not averse to that. One of my consistent Maxims to Live By is: if you get a chance at a cheap shot, don’t miss. Until quite recently, this may or may not have included swearing. Now I see that any cheap shot MUST include naughty expressions, and the naughtier the better.

It was the Weekend Australian newspaper that alerted me to this new imperative. One of its regular columnists reported on a study by four academics – one each from Maastricht University, the Netherlands; Hong Kong University of Science and Technology; Stanford; and Cambridge (yes of course, not that upstart town in the US). Wittily, they have called their paper Frankly We Do Give a Damn: The Relationship Between Profanity and Honesty, but somewhat less than lightly they have begun their discussion by explaining the source of the title, apparently lacking confidence that their fellow nerds would get it.

I imagine these three chaps and one chapess sitting in front of their computer screens, at the four corners of the Earth, contemplating collectively how the hell they were going to sell the product of their labours to the bastards who have future research grants to hand out. [See, I’m getting into it.] “I was watching South Park . . .” one began but was stopped. “Bugger it, we can’t go that far,” a wiser head counselled. “What’s the mildest bloody swear word you can think of?” A bit of electronic head-scratching ensued: “Damned if I know.” And then the light bulb went off.

Which of these dons, I wonder, watches old movies on TV? How, in fact, does such a widely distributed foursome get together, to swear at one another in at least three languages? [It sounds like the start of a dirty joke . . . a Dutchman, an American, a Pom and a Chinese lady walk into a conference room and . . .]

Anyway, what they actually did was this, according to the abstract: “There are two conflicting perspectives regarding the relationship between profanity and dishonesty. These two forms of norm-violating behavior share common causes and are often considered to be positively related. On the other hand, however, profanity is often used to express one’s genuine feelings and could therefore be negatively related to dishonesty. In three studies, we explored the relationship between profanity and honesty. We examined profanity and honesty first with profanity behavior and lying on a scale in the lab, then with a linguistic analysis of real-life social interactions on Facebook; and finally with profanity and integrity indexes for the aggregate level of US states. We found a consistent positive relationship between profanity and honesty; profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level.”

The message is clear to me: swear your head off for credibility. And who do you think is the one person who gets cited by name in the ensuing 20-odd pages of statistics, charts, footnotes and appendices as an outstanding example? Yep, you gottim – The Donald. No commentary on anything these days is Trump-free, and I apologise for joining the herd . . . although I do claim I am merely reporting somebody else’s example.

Now I wouldn’t want anyone in academia who might chance across this to think their fellows are breaking rank here. What they actually say is: “Profanity has even been used by presidential candidates in American elections as recently illustrated by Donald Trump, who has been both hailed for authenticity and criticized for moral bankruptcy.” But if you put that together with their conclusion that “profanity was associated with less lying and deception at the individual level and with higher integrity at the society level”, judgement on the swearing Donald must swing towards authenticity. You decide whether “authenticity” can be a synonym for honesty – I guess the four good persons and true couldn’t bring themselves to use the “h” word in relation to Mr Trump. I’m also slightly startled that seasoned academics find it surprising that “even” presidential candidates have been profane.

But look, this is all well and good – damned statistics don’t lie, do they? – but I’m just a bit sceptical. I related in my original piece a story of interviewing a Gold Coast property developer who was a truly creative and prolific swearer. Anyone who knows anything about the Gold Coast and property developers, together and severally, must entertain the same doubts. Maybe the word “spiv” springs to mind. All I know is he boasted to me about Big Plans but nothing he said he was going to do actually came to pass and he went broke (again) before he died.

A photographer with whom I both worked and lived a long time ago loved to tell stories, some of them detectably tallish in nature. It’s not that he lied – he just liked to tell people what they wanted to hear (for example, that there was film in the camera all the time he was clicking away taking pix of their cute babies). He was also somewhat volatile in his relationship with spoken English, such that under stress his vocabulary became severely limited to a small number of Anglo-Saxon words. He remains the only cricketer I’ve ever heard of whom the umpires sent off the field when they could no longer tolerate his behaviour. My friend was a fast bowler and, like all of the breed, he liked to swing the game his way by any tactic he could think of. I wasn’t present the day of his ill-fame but it appears there was one particular batsman who just would not get out. He tried everything, up to and including cheating by opening and raising the seam of the ball (cricketers will know the gravity of the crime). This apparently was all right. What tipped the umpires over the edge was his action in following through from his delivery right up to the batsman and screaming abuse at the chap nose-to-nose in his, as I say, limited vocabulary.

Those were the days, though, when swearing outside the bar and in front of women was looked on as poor form – although I will say that in my profession the language barriers were low to non-existent and the ladies neither blushed nor refrained from giving forth in their own right. One female journo of my acquaintance not only possessed the enviable skill of drinking and smoking simultaneously but was also a formidable four-letter fornicator when she could get her mouth free. Nevertheless public profanity was poor form.

My standard in most matters of the English language is, as my small but perfectly formed audience knows, P.G. Wodehouse. In all his 75 years of professional writing, 90-plus novels, hundreds of short stories, umpteen pieces of journalism and a career on Broadway and in Hollywood, he only once resorted to profanity although his characters often absolutely and undeniably needed to express themselves freely and frankly. He used a range of euphemisms like “dash it all”, “blasted” and “blighter” – which for many years I regarded as normal words from his Edwardian era, until one day it came on me like a flash that this was Plum swearing. The great Australian adjective he mostly represented with “blood-soaked” or “bloodstained” but at some stage he came up with the more inventive “exsanguinated” – and that’s my all-time favourite.

The sole instance of Wodehouse slipping off the gold standard is in the novel The Mating Season in which one character is called a “pie-faced young bastard” and another refers to her fiance’s aunts as being “all bitches”. The Mating Season was written in Paris in 1946 after Wodehouse’s distressful war experiences, his consequent grilling by the British authorities and the tragic death of his much-loved step-daughter. The late Lt-Col. N.T.P. Murphy observed in Vol. 2 of his Wodehouse Handbook: “I surmise this [coarseness in The Mating Season] was a hangover from PGW’s days in the internment camp. I regret to say that, in such all-male institutions, bad language is used so often it becomes habitual, losing all significance or meaning.”

Murphy was old-school, too, and I doubt he got around much in places where the youth of today gather. As a veteran soldier it’s unlikely he would have been shocked at anything he heard but he might have been slowed down a bit by some of the things that have reached my ears on public transport when I’ve had the misfortune to be travelling at the same time school gets out. I’m the father of four boys and so the air around them over the years, and even more so now they’ve grown to man’s estate, has often assumed a bluish complexion. I’m not unguilty myself in this area. And of course the media these days is almost completely uninhibited. But what constantly appals me – and I concede it shouldn’t – is the language of the, to use a Wodehouse term, delicately nurtured.

If I ever got the chance, I would like to ask our four psychology researchers – who frankly do give a damn – to consider something that may be a touch more profound than whether “even” US presidents use profanity. It’s this:

After you’ve heard a bunch of butter-wouldn’t-melt schoolgirls, going home from a day at the finest educational institutions their parents’ debt capacity can buy, offer opinions on life, the universe and everything in the plainest of four-letter language, do you think the world is a better, more honest place?

Oh Savannah, don’t you cry for me

A new year and it’s about time I got back to work. My dearly beloved says I’m just lazy. Up to a point, Lord Copper. Fact is, my natural tendency to procrastination has been reinforced lately by an attack of the I-don’-wannas fuelled by I-dunno-what. Murder and mayhem are everywhere and the Jaapes made the start of the Test cricket season absolute misery. But that’s not why.

Also, my Wodehousean correspondents at the other end of the Kangaroo Route have been far from gruntled and I’ve been electronically patting their hands and cooling their brows, and getting a little TLC in return. That’s not why either.

I just can’t put my finger on it. For some reason floating in the shallows of my mind, I’ve not been able to finish off my tales from north Queensland, although I’ve had plenty of time and opportunity. Indeed I made a number of attempts but there’s no excuse really.

i-cairnstokarumba

Where was I? Oh yes. I’d zapped across north Queensland by bus from Cairns to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria and had started on the return journey via the Gulflander and was about to board that other railway relic, the Savannahlander, to wind my way over a couple of days from the remnant mining town of Forsayth to the Atherton Tableland and back down the range from Kuranda to Cairns.

The company that operates the Savannahlander offers a longish list of tour options, ranging from the full catastrophe – four-day round trip on the train visiting various attractions – to a number of shorter options including a run out from Cairns on the train to different spots and a return by bus. My Australian Railway Historical Society tour mixed things up a bit and did it all in reverse. Rest easy, though – I’m not about to start on a km-by-km narrative of a couple of days at 40-60kmh on a vintage railmotor through country that at times some might feel lacks that certain wow factor. What follows are a few bits and pieces, mostly from the Savannahlander but also from the bus ride and Cairns.

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The Savannahlander itself comprises three 2000 class railmotor units – two built in 1963 and the third in 1971. Externally the units are in (almost) original condition but all three railmotors have had their original engines replaced and automatic gearboxes fitted. They are air-conditioned by the simple method of having all the windows open. Toilets and drinking water are available on board. One of the units has had a wheelchair lift added and that doubles as a dumb waiter for the tea urn and accessories.

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Savannahlander interior . . . wood and corrugated iron for that Outback feel, air-conditioning via the open windows

The interiors have been kitted out, somewhat cheesily, with an “outback” wooden décor and the driver’s compartments at each end have been taken out, to give passengers a clear view out the front and rear. The driver encourages people to rotate through the second seat up front. On our trip, a few of us parked ourselves at the back so, instead of shouldering aside little old ladies to sit on the right hand of god at the controls, we just enjoyed the receding view on a permanent basis. Inter alia, this included the opportunity for splendid views of the Phillips sleepers underpinning unballasted track as highlighted in my Gulflander post, and also of unwelded rails held together with fishplates in the historical manner. The sound of the wheels going over the joints was the old familiar music now superseded on main lines by the hum of the pre-tensioned continuous rail.

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The view from the rear, ascending the Delaney Gorge out of Forsayth

At a particular place way out beyond the control of Queensland Rail – I never made a note of where exactly – something happened that you won’t get anywhere else, possibly in the world. The driver and his offsiders stopped the train so anyone who wanted to take pictures/videos of the train in motion could get off and position themselves appropriately. The line at this point, going east, sweeps down a slope through a cutting and over a low bridge crossing a river. All we brave photographers climbed down on the eastern side of the bridge and the driver backed up the train until it was out of sight. With a toot of the horn, he then brought it slowly back down the hill and across the bridge towards us. The sound of camera shutters going off nearly drowned out the diesel engines – well, they were loud anyway. We then climbed back on board and the Savannahlander continued on its way. The whole operation took about half an hour, I guess, but, as the timetable is fairly leisurely and there’s no other traffic on the line at any time, it really didn’t matter. Safety freaks shouldn’t be concerned – we were all consenting adults.

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The Savannahlander does a run for the passengers . . . somewhere out the back of beyond

I shot video on my phone, as I did of the receding Phillips-sleepered track, and I wanted to share it with you – and the soundtrack – but I need to update my WordPress account to include AV items. In the depths of my blues, this has been all too difficult: it involves some messing about with things I don’t understand, and an exchange of coin of the realm in which I am reluctant to engage. One day soon, though, I shall, and this site will advance haltingly into the 21st Century. Once more unto the breach, dear friends . . .

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The two major offline attractions of the Savannahlander tours are the Cobbold Gorge and the Undara lava tubes. Both are the result of geological action, although in totally different ways. Neither is spectacular on the Swiss Alps scale, but each is compelling, not merely because they’re interesting to look at but because they provide an up-close, touchable lesson in how the Earth, or at least this part of it, was formed.

For me in retrospect, this was enhanced by travelling west to east because what happens as you head along the Savannah Way out of Croydon is that you cross ancient seabed with exposed sedimentary layers (a vast area that includes Cobbold Gorge) and then you hit the lava fields (including Undara) left by the volcanos of the Atherton Tableland. So there’s a kind of natural progress from the ancient sea to the fiery processes of the forming land.

cobbold-gorge-from-the-top

Top of the Cobbold Gorge

The rugged sandstone formations around Cobbold Gorge were created around 1700 million years ago. The sand and mud sediment deposited on what was then the ocean floor is now more than 10 kilometres thick. Movement in the Earth’s crust caused the sediments to compress and fracture. Torrents of water spilled through the narrow cracks, leaving deep gorges and permanent springs and seepages. Cobbold Gorge is the result of minor movement only about 10,000 years ago. Set between 30 metre cliffs, it narrows to a mere 2 metres wide in places.

Tourists get to climb around the heights above the gorge, guided by the usual khaki-clad rangers, and drift on electric-powered boats along the waters of the gorge trying to spot the various kinds of wild life the guides point out. They claim freshwater crocodiles inhabit the place but none came out to play the day I was there. Funny thing, in all the time I was on this trip, despite the constant talk about their presence, I never saw one of the gnarled munchies, not even dead by the tracks.

cobbold-from-boat

Bottom of the Cobbold Gorge

We stayed the night at the resort the property owners have built. It’s pretty well set up, and even with the tourist hordes the gorge itself and the surrounds offer some valuable peace and quiet. The road in is unsealed but not bad if you don’t mind the dust. Look up the website.

There’s a resort at Undara too, built out of vintage Queensland railway carriages. It was booked out, so we had to stay at Mt Surprise (at a place called Bedrock Village – yes, the Flintstones) and bus in and out. Why is it that all over Australia people in the tourist trade feel they need gimmicks to attract the punters?

Undara is good enough by itself. It’s 300km from Cairns and worth every turn of the wheels. The lava tubes are massive voids in the earth. If you think tunnels through the Swiss Alps or under Sydney Harbour or even the Melbourne CBD are pretty awesome, you should go and see what nature has wrought. These are cathedrals to Vulcan.

undara-offers-unique-tours-19783_870x575

Undara lava tube . . . a cathedral to Vulcan

According to the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service: “The Undara lava tube system is Australia’s longest, and one of the longest in the world . . . the finest examples in Australia and contain specialised ecosystems that are internationally significant.” Undara was an active shield volcano for millions of years. About 190,000 years ago, there was a massive eruption and an estimated 23.3 cubic kilometres of lava flowed more than 90km to the north and over 160km to the north-west at about 1000 cubic metres every second – enough to fill Sydney Harbour in six days, it’s said. These rivers of lava pouring down valleys at about 1200 degrees Celsius crusted over and a roof formed over the rest of the lava which continued flowing before draining out and leaving an empty tube. Weaker sections of the roof of the tubes later collapsed to form the caves that allow access today.

The flora and fauna in and around the tubes carry fascinating stories of their own. Ribbons of emerald-green vine thicket, for example, which contrast with the surrounding dry savannah woodland, contain distinctive plants that have strong affinities with Gondwana species from 300 million years ago, before the Australian continent even existed. The high levels of carbon dioxide (up to 6 per cent – 150 times greater than normal atmospheric levels), stagnant air and high relative humidity in some tubes have created a habitat where only specially adapted animals can survive.

The environment has also spawned at least one tour guide with some interesting, if not unique, views on basic chemistry. Our guide (in khaki, of course) propounded a theory on the calcium deposits at one place which had a chemist in our party shaking her head and then went on to demonstrate the CO2 content of the atmosphere by lighting a taper – held at head level it barely flickered; above his head it flared brightly. Fine. Except he then declared this was because there was no oxygen in the air down low. Well I don’t know what he thought he was breathing, nor the various animals that live at the ground level.

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The Savannahlander route

I suppose that, if for some reason, you didn’t want to visit Cobbold Gorge and Undara you could just stick with the train and you’d still get plenty out of the trip, given the variety of country you cross – the line was built to take the easiest and cheapest course through the land and that meant following the contours along hillsides and creeks and rivers over the couple of low ranges until you hit the flats of the Atherton Tableland. Again I think it is probably better to go west to east, at least until you get to Kuranda on the edge of the Great Dividing Range overlooking Cairns. Going up from Cairns beats going down; it’s a terrific run over one of the world’s great railway engineering feats.

We had the advantage, too, of having travelled out by bus, which allowed us to visit a couple of places that aren’t on the train route, like Atherton and Ravenshoe. Atherton was once on the main QR line which ran south from Mareeba to Ravenshoe. The line used today was built by mining companies through Almaden to Forsayth and that was the branch. Mareeba to Atherton and Ravenshoe – today partly demolished – served the vast military camp that was established on the Tableland during World War II. Indeed, that track and the single tortuous line between Cairns and Kuranda was the major strategic supply route for the troops who eventually headed off into Papua New Guinea and the Pacific.

Nowadays the main road virtually runs parallel to the old rail right-of-way and some thoughtful soul has tagged areas along it with signboards stating which army unit was camped where. My dad was with the Seventh Division 2nd AIF and there are many indicators of its occupation but his battalion was lodged to the east of the road in what is now a national park, so I didn’t see where he was.

tumoulin-poetAt the end of the line, Ravenshoe, famed for its mining industry, has preserved its station and has a little rail museum. The Ravenshoe Steam Railway is no longer allowed to operate on the remaining track. Its rolling stock stands brightly painted but slowly decaying. It used to run up the line a few kilometres to Tumoulin, billed as the highest point on Queensland railways. The place is looked after to the extent it has the grass cut and basic maintenance done. The signboard at Tumoulin boasts a poem that expresses one man’s happy day on the tracks behind a steamer. Some of the sleepers at Ravenshoe and Tumoulin have names carved into them – apparently you could buy a sleeper as a donation to the railway.

donation-sleeper-tumoulin

mareeba-mosque

The mosque in Mareeba .

We got taken to a few spots where the railway used to be but I have to say looking at bare bits of ground is somewhat less than exciting. At Mareeba, where the train no longer stops, our bus driver took us on a whirlwind tour of the town, the highlight of which was not the empty rail yard but the mosque. I doubt many Australian country towns have such an edifice. It was built in 1970 to replace a house that had been used by as mosque by Albanian immigrants who came to the Tableland in the early 1950s to work in tobacco industry. Of course, the tobacco industry is now gone but the Muslims remain. They are as integrated into the local community as any other small group might be and doubtless, in the current political climate, that was the motive of the bus driver for showing us.

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almaden

One place the train does stop is Almaden – pronounced Alma-den, rather than Al-maden. Named after a mining district in Spain, it was the rail junction for mines at Chillagoe and Mungana, and later for others out to Forsayth. This is the end of the originally fairly heavyweight branch from the QR junction at Mareeba. West of Almaden it’s lightweight rails, basic engineering and no ballast. The train company offers tours to Chillagoe but we didn’t go there; we just stopped for lunch at the Railway Hotel, which is the most substantial building left in the place.

On the far wall of the airy, well kept main bar, next to the door to a restful garden, hangs a large, wood-framed photograph of a racehorse passing the winning post. The picture is headed: “Almaden Race Club – Queensland 75th Anniversary – May 1996”. The caption underneath states: “Railway Hotel/Class 4 Handicap 1200 metres. Winner: “Up the Creek”. Jockey: Gary Morrisson. Photo: Marie Low”.

Every country pub in Australia, and many city ones beside, has a picture like that on the wall. Once upon a time the die-hards used to gather in the pub on Saturday afternoon to have a bet on the neddies over a few quiet ones. In the summer, the blowfly buzz of the heavy heat outside was broken only by the drone of the radio race-caller. Now, of course, the TV blares out descriptions of every contest in the country, whether of hacks in the couldn’t-beat-eggs class at Upper Woop-Woop or of their aristocratic relatives at Royal Randwick or Flemington. Still, there’s a tradition and here I was in the Railway Hotel, Almaden (pop. two men and a dog, except when the Savannahlander arrives twice a week) and it was, by coincidence, a Saturday afternoon. How could I not notice the racing picture?

almaden-race-picture

Sorry about the reflection

I was standing with a pal from our tour group, backs to the bar, sampling its best product and idly contemplating this picture of Up the Creek winning the Class 4 Handicap at the 75th Anniversary races. I thought it was a pretty good photograph. I’ve had some experience choosing pix for publication and so I reckon I have fair judgement. It was a good pic. But it slowly dawned on me that, good as it was, something was a bit different about the picture – there was only one horse in it. Up the Creek had literally won by the length of the straight.

“I’d like to meet the bookie who’d bet on a one-horse race,” I observed. My drinking buddy began to take notice, too. “But there had to be other horses,” he said, “otherwise it wouldn’t have been a race. Where are they?”

Certainly the picture, which took in the whole of the Almaden straight, contained no evidence that any other hayburner had ever been within coo-ee of Up the Creek, or indeed of the Almaden racetrack. This began to be a bit of a worry. Mine Host was called into play. “What’s the story here?”

Ah yes. It seemed that three horses had gone to the barriers for the race. One broke down before the start and never came under starter’s orders. The other two jumped and headed off towards the turn into the straight – whereupon Up the Creek’s rival decided he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make it today and he believed strongly that the bush off the side of the track was a better option, leaving G. Morrisson to pilot Up the Creek home alone.

Good picture, I said in professional tones. Mine Host agreed but added that it was something of an accident. The photographer, Marie Low, had actually being trying to catch her husband at work down by the winning post as the official snapper for the day. “She won an award for that photo,” he said.

Actually she didn’t. In 1996 when Marie Low took her picture at Almaden, she had a picture nominated for a Walkley Award – the official national awards for Australian journalism – but the Walkley Foundation doesn’t have her on the list of winners. I can only assume the nominated picture was of Up the Creek winning the Class 4 Handicap at the 75th Anniversary of the Almaden Race Club. I have spent hours looking for Marie and her pic on the web (because my effort  caught too much reflection in the glass). Looks like she might still be a photographer in Cairns. I’ll let you know if I muster up enough energy to call her.

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The run back to Cairns from Almaden was again one of those nice transitions that I feel you can get only going west-east. The train heads across the dry savannah country through Mareeba and over some difficult and picturesque hills, all the while accompanied by a commentary from our driver who never seemed to be bored although he’s done the trip hundreds of times. He’s even featured on TV, on a Discovery Channel show about great Australian trains, which has been repeated on SBS or the ABC (can’t remember which). Gradually the land changes into green farming country, and almost imperceptibly becomes more populated and busy.

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A tunnel of trees . . . the view from the back of the train as the Savannahlander runs into Kuranda from the west

Near Kuranda the farms turn to remnant rain forest and odd houses tucked away among the trees. Along the Barron River into Cairns the track is through a tunnel of greenery, through which to the left the river can be glimpsed. These few kilometres are very popular, especially with walkers who seem to think the presence of gleaming steel rails doesn’t mean anything. Occasionally, therefore, the odd, bearded, backpacking unreconstructed hippie who tends to wander around the bush up there collects the Savannahlander in the small of the back.

I can’t imagine what the tie-dyed bong-bungers thought when a couple of years ago the QR 150th anniversary steam train chugged through to Mareeba and back. I passed up the chance to join that part of the trip and now wish I hadn’t. It was quite an achievement to get that train and that loco up the mountain and then roll over a track that hadn’t felt anything bigger than the Savannahlander railmotor for years. Anyway, apart from hooting a couple of stray Asian tourists out of our way, we got back into Kuranda and down the range to Cairns without incident.

∗          ∗          ∗

cairns-facade-1

Cairns calls for the screens

This whole saga started there months ago with my lament for Bernie’s, you might remember. And before I settle back into my Melbourne torpor I want to point out something from Cairns that I’d only noticed before in Europe – that is the practice of disguising restoration work on famous landmarks such as the Rialto in Venice with facade screens painted with the image of the building being renovated. In Cairns, they’ve taken the idea a step further. The electricity sub-station in the middle of the street outside the city art gallery has been painted to resemble a typical high-set Queensland tropical house. It contrasts rather ironically with the Aboriginal motifs painted on the columns of the gallery’s main entrance.

cairns-facade-2

Cairns . . . but is it art?

yorkeys-beach-signOh, and cop this sign from Yorkey’s Knob, near Cairns. It’s one of several posted along a strip maybe 300 metres long. Beachgoers can’t say they haven’t been warned – stinger jellyfish that can and do kill and, of course, crocodiles. I went to Yorkey’s for lunch and only faced the sharks in the yacht club. Cheers.

 

 

Jeeves and the social conscience

Once again I have engaged the deep thinkers of the Ferkytoodlers group at the Melbourne Savage Club in the life and times of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse. I don’t know why, when again invited to impersonate Mr Mulliner, I chose this particular topic but somehow it turned out right for the times. The talk also coincided with the arrival of grandson Clarence on Plum’s birthday, which inspired a wonderful poem by Ashok Bhatia. And for those of you who have not been paying attention, Clarence is not only the given name of Lord Emsworth, seigneur of Blandings Castle, but also the first name of C.J. Dennis, author of The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke, who has also featured in my wafflings to the Savage Club and recycled in The Traveller.

Enough of that. Here is the latest edition . . .

As a member of the Savage Club, I naturally have a profound understanding of the benefits of a springy pediment to house the billowy portions, some comforting restorative – preferably red – close to hand and a buzz of triviality drifting around the old bean. I wouldn’t call us lazy but perhaps we might have a leaning towards a certain, shall I say, relaxed approach to life, the universe and everything.

And this is how I made my first mistake in compiling my chat today on Reginald Jeeves, personal gentleman to Bertram Wilberforce Wooster of Crichton Mansions, Berkeley Street W1. Instead of simply getting a few gags from the internet, thus leaving myself free to play a few thousand more games of solitaire, I reached into my bookshelves and took down an oldish tome called Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes by an American academic named Kristin Thompson.

I swear I had no purpose other than seeking out a one-stop shop for some easy Wodehouse-isms to keep the troops amused – I most certainly did not want to sweat over any difficult research – but almost immediately I was plunged without warning into a world of Russian formalism, transferred epithets and psychical marriages. That’s what happens when the old grey cells are strolling along, smelling the flowers and just generally enjoying the sunshine. The said grey cells don’t expect to encounter the stinking rogers in the garden bed of existence.

Then, instead of bidding the thing begone and turfing it back into the unruly undergrowth of ill-discipline that is my library, I made my second mistake: I read on. In my own defence, I didn’t read all of it. Like numerous famous personages, I didn’t inhale. But the result nevertheless, my Brother Savages, is that, while I will make every effort in what ensues to heed Mel Brooks’ advice to keep it light, keep it bright, keep it gay – well, light and bright anyway – my subject matter in odd spots may take on the aspect of a Savage Club sticky date pudding. I suppose in the manner of today’s academy that constitutes a trigger warning.

At this point, a quantum of querulousness may be shoving its nose above the level of the house red in circulation around the table. If, I can hear you thinking, this idiot is giving us trigger warnings, why should we not just bung him out on his ear and get on with the browsing and sluicing unencumbered by loose talk about social consciences? Five minutes ago, I can sense you thinking, Jeeves’s social conscience was not an issue. Whoever thought it might be, or indeed, that it even existed? Why should we even bother with it?

Jeeves is one of the most famous characters in all of English literature. His name never has to be qualified – and indeed that’s how I’ve embarked on this exposition today. No one has asked who the hell is Jeeves. You only have to mention Jeeves and everyone knows you are talking about the butlerine genus. Jeeves, of course, is a valet – and that is val-ett, as the English upper classes say – or, as he prefers, a gentleman’s personal gentleman, but he can, when called upon, buttle with the best of them. Everyone also knows Jeeves as a man of few but well chosen words, as a fixer of life’s little problems and as a source of infallible information on any topic. At one stage in his career, he is asked: ‘Good Lord, Jeeves! Is there anything you don’t know?” To which he replies: “I couldn’t say, sir.” And there you have it – that’s Jeeves.

But is Jeeves sound? With civilisation apparently collapsing all around us, does Jeeves represent something enduring amid the chaos?  Does the character have character? Is his social conscience alive and well? Does anyone really know Jeeves? My literary adviser, Kristin Thompson, thinks she does. In her earnest, humourless, Midwestern way, she delves to no little extent into the character behind his finely chiselled features. I’m afraid he doesn’t come out of it well.

Jeeves, says the fragrant Kristin, is intelligent (yes, we all agree of course), educated (autodidactic, surely), intellectual (oh dear), pragmatic (here we go) and fundamentally amoral (which seems to be a generic label for traits that later on in her text include wilful, headstrong, supercilious, snobbish, selfish, insensitive, cynical, Machiavellian, deceitful, reactionary and misogynist). She points out that Jeeves frequently resorts to trickery and blackmail, and has been known to use actual violence in furtherance of his ends. This, gentlemen, is not the portrait of a man with a social conscience – at least as far as that term is understood and used today.

“Social conscience” is a sibling of that other bastard son of hippie sanctimony, “social justice”. Authorities are agreed that “social conscience” is “a sense of responsibility or concern for the problems and injustices of society”. The modern Jeeves, Wikipedia, explains: “While our conscience is related to our moral conduct in our day-to-day lives with respect to individuals, social conscience is concerned with the broader institutions of society and the gap that we may perceive between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist.”

I don’t know about you but this stuff gives me a slight throbbing about the temples. Take a moment then and join me in the pause that refreshes. Everything will be all right. You see, for me, the definition and elaboration of “social conscience” as presented describe Jeeves perfectly. His social conscience is just not one that would be approved by the great and good occupying what they have staked out as the high moral ground.

P.G. Wodehouse introduced Jeeves to the world on 18 September 1915 in the story Extricating Young Gussie. It was just a walk-on part:

 Jeeves came in with the tea. “Jeeves,” I said, “we start for America on Saturday.”
“Very good, sir,” he said; “which suit will you wear?”

 He was given a bit of business handling the baggage at US customs but no more lines. That was it. But very little has ever been written that contains as much possibility and as much meaning as those five words “which suit will you wear?” For the next 60 years, everything Wodehouse had Jeeves do was based on that question.

It is central to my thesis today. Jeeves’s sense of right and wrong, his social conscience, is demonstrated by his adherence to certain standards in matters of (male) dress. I suppose there must be other characters somewhere in modern literature to whom the motto “clothes maketh the man” can be applied but few, if any, of them can have it as their whole personal ethos.

So it is that Jeeves moves rapidly from simply asking the young master what he might wear to fully editing the gents’ outer raiment. In only the fourth story in the series, Jeeves Takes Charge, which backtracks a little to when Bertie engages Jeeves as his valet, Jeeves’s frame of reference is constructed and nailed securely in place for ever more. Bertie has to visit Lord Worplesdon at his country house. Jeeves tells Bertie he was once in the employ of the Right Honourable Earl and tendered his resignation because he could not see “eye to eye with his lordship in his desire to dine in dress trousers, a flannel shirt and a shooting coat”. Jeeves asks Bertie the fateful question. Bertie says he’ll wear the suit he has on, “a rather sprightly young check”. Bertie confesses (to camera, as it were) that it is perhaps “rather sudden till you got used to it” but the lads at the club admired it. To which Jeeves does the “very good, sir” response that Bertie then and forever more recognises as “a kind of rummy something in his manner”. Then follows:

 “Don’t you like this suit, Jeeves,” I said coldly.
“Oh, yes, sir.”
“Well, what don’t you like about it?”
“It is a very nice suit, sir,”
“Well, what’s wrong with it? Out with it, dash it!”
“If I might make the suggestion, sir, a simple brown or blue, with a hint of some quiet twill–”

jeeves4What we learn from this exchange is that, as far as Jeeves is concerned, there is a right way and a wrong way, and he, Jeeves, will uphold the right – in other words, Jeeves is filling the gap he perceives between the sort of society that should exist and the real society that does exist. The earl, as a peer of the realm and a man of eminence in the community, even in the privacy of his own home has to maintain the standard expected of him. Bertie, who has all the eminence of a pimple, is still a gentleman and therefore bookmaker’s checks are out and a quiet twill is in.

jeeves3Some years ago I promoted the idea that we should discard ties at the Savage Club. I was rebuffed in no uncertain fashion. It was a half-baked idea, I was told; the relevance of ties inside the club was strengthened by the retreating standards of dress outside. The abandonment of ties was the thin edge of the wedge; it was the start of the slippery slope. One club that did it collapsed, I was told – and in verse. I should have remembered Jeeves. A distraught Bertie, facing some kind of disaster, questions the need for a perfect butterfly shape to his white tie:

  “What do ties matter Jeeves, at a time like this?”
“There is no time, sir, at which ties do not matter.”

jeeves1Nor trousers, nor jackets, nor shirts, nor socks, nor hats – nor, for that matter, cummerbunds, which Bertie thinks have a Spanish effect:

 I dug out the old cummerbund and draped it around the old tum. I turned around and Jeeves shied like a startled mustang.
“I beg your pardon, sir,” he said in a sort of hushed voice, “you are surely not proposing to appear in public in that thing.”

jeeves5Then there’s the case of Bertie’s white mess jacket with the brass buttons.

 Jeeves: “I fear that you inadvertently left Cannes in the possession of a coat belonging to some other gentleman, sir.”
“No, Jeeves,” I said, “the object under advisement is mine.”
“You wore it, sir?”
“Every night.”
“But surely you are not proposing to wear it in England, sir?”

jeeves2You might sense a pattern developing. Consider this then:

 I reached for the umbrella and hat . . .
“Pardon me, sir, but are you proposing to enter the Ritz Hotel in that hat?”
. . . I had been asking myself what his reaction would be to the blue Alpine hat with the pink feather in it which I had purchased in his absence.

 Later (in another book actually) Bertie tells Jeeves several fellows at the Drones had asked him where he acquired the hat, to which he receives a response familiar to all of us here:  “No doubt with a view to avoiding your hatter, sir”

Haven’t got it yet? No. Well, how about Jeeves reviewing Bertie’s article on What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing for Aunt Dahlia’s paper, Milady’s Boudoir.

 He took the manuscript, brooded over it, and smiled a gentle, approving smile.
“The sock passage is quite in the proper vein, sir,” he said.
[A sentence or two later.] “Come to the bit about soft silk shirts for evening wear?” I asked carelessly.
“Yes, sir,” said Jeeves in a low cold voice, as if he had been bitten in the leg by a personal friend . . . “Soft silk shirts with evening costume are not worn, sir.”
[After some argy-bargy, Bertie goes on.] “Nobody has a greater respect than I have for your judgment in socks, in ties and – I will go further – in spats; but when it comes to evening shirts your nerve seems to fail you. Hidebound is the word that suggests itself. It may interest you to learn that when I was at Le Touquet the Prince of Wales buzzed into the casino one night with soft silk shirt complete.”
“His Royal Highness, sir, may permit himself a certain licence . . .”

I may be suffering confirmation bias – I think that’s the term. I detect, though, a hint of “rummy something” in Jeeves’s attitude towards the Prince of Wales. Far be it from him to disapprove of the prince’s choice of evening shirt but I sense an uneasiness, a feeling that the prince has let the side down. The divine right of kings does not extend to gentleman’s attire. Jeeves’ social conscience is suggesting that this is the thin edge, the top of the slippery dip. Probably Mrs Wallis Simpson liked soft shirts.

Do not be mistaken that Jeeves’s sartorial correctness reflects a supercilious or even cynical view by him or, more importantly, his creator. The idea that “clothes maketh the man” has a long history dating from Classical times and is one of the thousands of cliches Wodehouse played around with over his career for our fun and his profit. He also knew his Shakespeare backwards and so he was well aware of Polonius’s injunction to Laertes:

 Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man . . .

Furthermore, in his own appearance Wodehouse was quite the correct dresser. His writing garb might have been baggy old flannels and cardigan but in public he was resplendent in appropriate dress for the occasion, whether it be pin-stripes, tweeds, plus-fours or the old soup and fish. Wodehouse was very much a man of his times, and of his social class, even if he liked to perform what his family called the Wodehouse glide to escape social gatherings.

Wodehouse always professed not to like this kind of analysis of his work. He found it unsettling, he said. He referred to Richard Usborne, the author of Wodehouse at Work and other appreciative pieces, as “a certain learned Usborne” – and meant it to sting. I suspect Kristin Thompson might have attracted a stronger Wodehouse epithet, maybe “exsanguinated” or even “blasted”. Wodehouse fan Evelyn Waugh, who wrote a bit himself, reckoned the sort of thing I’ve been indulging in today was like taking a spade to a soufflé. The equally late Christopher Hitchens claimed to hate the treatment of literary characters as real people.

Oh, but it can be fun, as long as you don’t take it too far – and I don’t think I’m going over the top to assert that on the basis of Jeeves’s views on dress he has a social conscience and it is firing on all cylinders. And to the extent that Jeeves reflects his creator, this can be extended to Wodehouse. Jeeves’s rules are not merely a comical device founded in English perceptions of social class and, even before World War II, on anachronism; they are symbols of social stability and moral certitude in a world of declining standards of behaviour. In other words, sloppy dress indicates at least the potential for poor behaviour. On the other hand it must be conceded that perfectly correct dress does not guarantee good behaviour, and there are many examples of that in the Wodehouse canon out of the sight of Jeeves.

Which opens a whole new train of thought – so before I go down that bumpy route and turn this slight chat into a 400-page book filled with opinions from even more obscure academics than Thompson, I’ll hand over for the last word to the man himself. No, not Jeeves – Wodehouse, and one of his most famous and often repeated quotes.

“From my earliest years,” he wrote in his late seventies, “I had always wanted to be a writer. It was not that I had any particular message for humanity. I am still plugging away and not the ghost of one so far, so it begins to look as though, unless I suddenly hit mid-season form in my eighties, humanity will remain a message short.”

Indeed, sir.

My Dear Clarence

My wife and I are rejoicing in the birth of our third grandchild – on 15 October, P.G. Wodehouse’s 135th birthday. His parents didn’t know that. They also know nothing about the 9th Earl of Emsworth, seigneur of Blandings Castle  . . . but they named their new arrival, Clarence, his lordship’s given name.

I announced these amazing coincidences – oh, all right, omens – via Plumtopia, the repository of all things Wodehouse, written by/presided over by the lovely Honoria Plum. This inspired one of her followers (perhaps that should be Followers) Ashok Bhatia to produce a wonderful, touching and funny prayer. He addressed it to . . .

My Dear Clarence

Welcome to this wonderful world that you are born in,
Replete with natural beauty, heavens with stars twinkling;
Even though hatred, terror and dark forces too abound,
The innate goodness of human nature keeps us smiling.

You have chosen to be born on a very special day,
On which Plum, of whom your grandfather is an ardent fan, was born;
Many admirers of his continue to rejoice all over the world,
Many of his works do their bookshelves adorn.

You have brought great joy into the lives of your parents,
As you grow, you shall surely return their nurturing ways;
They plan to bring you up with lots of love and care,
Your innocent smiles and hugs shall brighten their days.

May Thos and Edwin never set the standards of your conduct,
May dousing fires with paraffin wax never come to your mind;
May you be humble, caring, never casting a supercilious gaze,
May thoughts of making butter slides you always leave behind.

May your intellect be always one up on that of Jeeves,
Your investigative skills as sharp as those of Baxter the efficient;
In culinary skills, may you surpass Anatole, in smartness, Psmith,
A heart that bleeds for its pals may also be sufficient.

May you never have an Aunt who forces her plans on you,
When settling down to a matrimonial bliss with a loving wife;
Candidature of a Florence or a Madeline you ought to avoid,
May you be the Little Bingo to the Rosie M Banks of your life.

May you acquire literary tastes early on in your life,
Start dishing out Plummy narratives without further delay;
Perhaps replacing telegrams with WhatsApp messages,
Since you may find it challenging to keep technology at bay.

On your slender shoulders you carry a mighty responsibility,
That of spreading cheer amongst the less fortunate ones;
Upholding the Code of the Woosters could be rather exciting,
The roses of your literary works may even silence the guns.

One wishes you a long and healthy life, full of laughter and love,
A sunny disposition to face the harsh slings and arrows of life;
A chin-up attitude, a song in the heart, a prayer on your lips,
Guardian Angels who fuss over you and protect you from many a strife.

– Ashok Bhatia, October 2016

The Wodehouse references will baffle, I suppose, most of my readers but, ladies and gentlemen, the meaning and the sentiment are clear, beautiful and uplifting. Suddenly the world is better place. Thank you, Ashok.

Un-itched in the Gulf

I began my journey on the Gulflander in 1983, when I first read a little book called Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country, a history of the now legendary Normanton to Croydon railway – the route of the Gulflander – told in painstaking detail by one J.W. Knowles. I was given it a couple of months after I had taken myself on a tour of the Queensland railway network. I travelled over most of the system in about three weeks but geography and time conspired to prevent me getting to the Normanton-Croydon line.

lonely-railsThis railway is a leftover from the goldrush days out the back of north Queensland, a line that was never connected to the state system – and never will be. Lonely Rails has been for the past 33 years as far as I was able to go on it. I felt a certain amount of frustration though. It was like the itch I have in my left leg from a minor childhood accident, and over the years I intermittently sought ways of scratching it, especially as the mystique of the Gulflander began to be built into what it is today. And there was something else, too – something connected with John (for that is the “J” in J.W.) Knowles. I felt I owed him.

nq-mapThe opportunity to un-itch myself finally arose, as I wrote in a previous piece on this trip,  A right Burke, when the Queensland division of the Australian Railway Historical Society put together a tour to celebrate the Normanton-Croydon railway’s 125th anniversary. I booked the last place in the tour party, packed my copy of Lonely Rails and headed to Cairns to join 36 other train-lovers of varying intensities to ride the last piece of operating track isolated from the Queensland system.

We were not the only tour group aboard when we took our seats at Normanton. The three cars were packed to capacity with 100 expectant faces, nearly all of them belonging to people like me, Australian, of a certain age, with time on our hands. The weekly jog of 94 miles (about 150km) to Croydon takes five-or-so hours, including a smoke-oh at a whistle-stop called Blackbull a bit more than halfway along.

A nicely produced and informative little guide book was distributed to help us enjoy ourselves. It’s worth reading the introduction (verbatim and uncorrected):

Welcome aboard the legendary Gulflander for a rail journey unlike any other. Affectionately known as the ‘Tin Hare’, this legendary rail motor is one of the last great characters of the rail world. This Heritage-listed railway line from Normanton to Croydon, which is said to go from ‘nowhere to nowhere’ was never connected to the state rail network and remains the only line in Queensland still measured in miles. Opened in 1891, the railway line was originally built to connect the once bustling river port of Normanton with the rich gold fields of Croydon. Today, your Savannah Guide accredited driver, Ken Fairbairn, will provide you with unique insight into this train and the journey through the Gulf Savannah. So sit back, take in the passing scenery and learn about the diverse Gulf landscapes, it’s [sic, disappointingly] flora and fauna, rich history, plus hear some tales of colourful characters along the way.

And that is what you get, although it was more than a little surprising to hear in the commentary from the personable Ken, who introduced himself as “Kenneth”, that he wasn’t managing a museum. He thinks he’s running a railway, although he must have doubts or he wouldn’t have mentioned it.

In 1983, John Knowles captioned a picture of the track thus: “Probably the least busy rails in the world, carrying about 100 tons of goods and 750 passengers per year.” He noted: “It now has only one railcar per week, and one man does almost everything but look after the track . . . Since its heyday, its story has been of less and less, and even less – so little traffic, so few staff, such little rolling stock, seen and used by very few.” He resisted what must have been, even then, a considerable temptation to call the line completely redundant.

Three decades later, the Normanton-Croydon line is a major attraction in the Gulf’s growing tourist industry. But as a service to the people of the region and their farming and fishing industries, it is irrelevant. Oh, the non-museum manager-cum-train driver claims to do a mail drop and pickup for regional cattle stations at Haydon, 32 miles along, on the weekly run but, well, let’s just say I saw no evidence of bulls at the time. The now fully sealed Gulf Development Road runs parallel to the railway for much of its length and I feel fairly safe in assuming that’s how the mail really gets through, given that cars race ahead of the train so tourists can snap pictures of it as it ambles along at speeds never exceeding 40kmh and/or pick up many of its passengers at Croydon, either to head further east or go back to Normanton as the train does not return until the next day.

Ken/Kenneth told us that as many as 10,000 people a year now travel on the Gulflander. This story may be somewhat tallish, too. The service does not operate every week – indeed it cannot, since in the Wet the land and the line are usually flooded. It is closed before Christmas and usually re-opens in about March, depending on the floods. It has been known to be shut down until May. But say it runs for 40 weeks at its 100 capacity both ways. That’s 8000 people tops – not taking into account the normal fluctuations in the tourist trade and double counting the hardy souls who travel both ways. There are photographs of the train with only one trailing car, meaning that at least sometimes it runs at below capacity. Nevertheless, the thousands of passengers today represent a remarkable advance on the hundreds John Knowles recorded 30-odd years ago.

Normanton station . . . home of the Gulflander

Normanton station . . . home of the Gulflander

The interest has meant an assistant for Kenneth, smart renovations at Normanton station and its surrounds, a new station at Croydon (as termites ate the previous one into the ground), additional rolling stock, more regular track maintenance and, no small thing this for city-based tourists, a proper dunny at Blackbull. Kenneth, a fitter by trade, and his mate, whose name I can’t remember (sorry, if you come across this), spend the off months doing essential repairs on their antique train, an even older railmotor in their care and other equipment.

Blackbull smoke-oh stop . . . oh-so-important dunny at right

Blackbull smoke-oh stop . . . oh-so-important dunny at right

What persuades Ken he is not in charge of a museum is that the Gulflander is still operated by the State-owned Queensland Rail, it runs to a timetable and QR regulations, and he and his offsider are QR employees. He’s been chief cook and bottle-washer on the Gulflander for nine years and I must say shows no sign of wanting to move on. But look, Ken or Kenneth notwithstanding, the whole show really is a museum. It wasn’t even called the Gulflander until about 1987.

rm-93The train nowadays consists of a single-car railmotor (RM 93) and two trailing cars. RM 93 was built at Ipswich Workshops in 1950 and was sent to Normanton in 1982.  It has a four-wheel bogie at the front and two larger wheels at the rear driven through a four-speed crash gearbox by a tailshaft from the front-mounted Gardner diesel engine. Like all its predecessors, RM 93 is essentially a truck on rail wheels. The trailing cars are railmotor equipment of slightly younger vintage – one being the de-motored Queensland Commissioners car of the 1980s and the other a trailing car of the same type. The polished interiors, fitted out with leather upholstery, lavatories and fold-out steps (essential as most of the passengers are less than agile), are beautifully kept and the exterior of the whole ensemble has been smartly painted in vintage ochre with a white roof, a longitudinal yellow stripe and the name “Gulflander” with the QR logo in the same yellow. These are the colours I remember on railmotors of the RM 93 type when I was boy.

RM 60

Ken and his mate also have charge of the resurrected RM 60, built in 1931, essentially replaced in 1964 and not much in use for 30 years afterwards. It is available for short-trip charters and our group, being officially rail buffs, had a run in it to the Four-Mile the day before our trip to Croydon. Making up the complement is a lightweight diesel engine (ca 1961), once used on the line between Mt Surprise and Forsayth, where we’ll be venturing on the next leg of my northern odyssey.

The renovated Normanton station, with its typical north Queensland arched train shed, is well maintained and has a blooming garden in front. One room houses a small collection of curios and ephemera from days gone by. Another serves as the souvenir shop, without which no tourist trap is complete. A couple of the steam locomotives which operated the line until 1922 are on static display. Croydon station, as mentioned, is new but done with steel in the style of the old wooden buildings. Another of the old steamers stands forlornly in its foreground.

The real star of the show, though, is the track. Very little is unique in the world but this truly is – although most travellers probably don’t realise it as they endure its bumps and jolts and eccentric swaying through the scrubby savannah bush and vast cleared paddocks that cover an utterly flat land profile. But it is precisely this landscape that has made the track a true one-off.

Back in the 1880s Croydon gold boom, the requirement was to build quickly and cheaply a railway that could cope with being a long way from anywhere for the supply of materials, with a Wet season where the rivers always broke their banks and swept widely across the flats, and with the termites that loved imported wood.

The line’s builder, George Phillips, had an idea. John Knowles relates: “As Inspecting Surveyor [for Queensland Government Railways], he appreciated the development value of railways but realised the lightly populated Colony could afford them only if construction could be cheapened. Existing lines had light rails and often steep gradients, but had heavy earthworks to keep them away from floods. Phillips rejected this tradition and in 1884 patented a steel sleeper, the major constituent of his cheaper system. He recommended there be no earthworks, the line be laid directly on the surface, and that floods be allowed to wash over it.”

Phillips sleepers, still in use today, are U-shaped, rather than solid. Inverted and without ballast, they become packed with mud as they are pressed into the ground. The AHRS (Qld) leaflet for our tour remarks: “That George Phillips was on the right track (so to speak) is evident in the fact that the line is still in existence today. As the rails are bolted to the sleepers the track never gets out of gauge, although the whole line does move sideways at times. During floods the waters flow harmlessly over the rails and about the only thing to be done when waters fall is to extract the small crocodiles that have become trapped under the rails!” Of course.

Stacks of the "new" sleepers . . . still hollow but shaped differently

Stacks of the “new” sleepers . . . still hollow but shaped differently

I noticed at Normanton stacks of rusty steel sleepers similar to the Phillips in design but of a somewhat different shape and it appears the original Philips sleepers are being replaced with the others as needed. John Knowles wrote in 1983 that the Normanton-Croydon line turned out to be the only one Q(Government)R built with Phillips steel sleepers, as steel had become too expensive compared with timber. Where these “new” steel sleepers are coming from, I couldn’t say; it doesn’t seem likely they’ve been manufactured especially.

Phillips sleeper on the left . . . "new" type on the right

Phillips sleeper on the left . . . “new” type on the right

For me, though, this is what the Normanton-Croydon railway is all about. The Gulflander is only a name, and a relatively recent one at that, picked up, as I said in A right Burke, from the Q(G)R “Lander” series of long distance trains and designed to attract tourists. It’s succeeded, of that there can be no doubt, providing an adventure that consists of travelling hundreds of kilometres into the Outback to catch a bumpy, slow train from nowhere to nowhere across completely alien country. There are few locals to use it – even if they wanted to. The Shire of Carpentaria is as big as Tasmania and has a population of fewer than 3000. Looked at from one angle, the line is no more than a fairground ride.

But those Phillips sleepers hold the thing together, both literally and metaphorically. They are one of those expressions of human ingenuity that are brilliant in their simplicity, and therefore worth preserving. It’s easy to admire the big human achievements: not so much the little bits and pieces that lack grandeur but are important all the same. I didn’t notice Ken, or anyone for that matter, even among the rail freaks on my trip, pointing out to goggle-eyed tourists that those bits of bent steel represented the whole basis of what they were there to enjoy. Which is a pity. With wooden sleepers, the track long ago would have been deemed too expensive and too futile to maintain and it would have disappeared into an obscure historical footnote. So for anyone from my trip who might read this, that’s what I was doing poking around and pointing my camera at the ground.

Having underpinned the railway in the first place, Phillips sleepers have now transformed a “why are we doing this?” anomaly into a living, breathing museum (pace Kenneth). And as well as allowing me to scratch my itch, they have provided the means for me to redeem my debt to Mr Knowles, and in doing so I’ve gained so much more than I’ve expended.

Back in the second half of 1983 when this yarn started, the literary editor of the Brisbane Courier-Mail, where I was then working, asked me to review the newly published Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country (along with another of Mr Knowles’ small Queensland railway histories). He knew I had an interest in railways since I’d written for the paper a month or two before an account of my circumnavigation of Queensland by rail. So I typed up my review and put the books on my shelves.

Some little while later, a letter found its way to me in Melbourne where I had moved to take up a new job. It was from John Knowles, thanking me for my “very complimentary” review. He was especially glad because, as the self-publisher of the books, it might help him get his money back. “Even railway enthusiast societies think rare subjects are not sufficiently commercial to merit a book,” he wrote, “so I put my money where my mouth is and published it myself. Sales are encouraging.”

I didn’t clip the review, so I don’t know what I said in it – although there’s no doubt I liked the books, especially Lonely Rails – but I did keep the letter. I guess I must have meant to reply. In the event I didn’t and have always regretted this small discourtesy – why that one and not a million others, I have no idea. I learned years later that John Knowles was considered a guru on Queensland railways and so, not having made and maintained the contact, I really was a loser.

The odd thing about his letter that I didn’t appreciate at the time was that it had come from England on an “aerogramme”, which my contemporaries might remember – a blue single sheet of lightweight paper that was folded on itself and stuck together. It was sent by air mail, when that was something special, and cheaper than a conventional letter in an envelope (another small piece of ingenuity now gone).

Then, early last year I came across a letter from a J.W. Knowles in an Australian railway magazine.  I was about to head north for QR’s 150th anniversary steam train run from Cairns to Brisbane  and so I asked the QR historian, with whom I had been in contact, whether the J.W. in the magazine was the same as the J.W. who wrote Lonely Rails. Of course it was. I acquired his e-mail address – which incorporates the classification of a Queensland workhorse steam locomotive – and, 30-plus years late, I fired off a “Dear John”, inter alia apologising for my discourtesy.

A few days later back came a friendly reply, remembering the review but not the reviewer. [Hmmm, serves me right.] He was still taking an active interest in Queensland rail, even though (as I learned afterwards) he has lived in England for 40 years. I left matters at that until I managed to squeeze into the Gulflander tour. I then wrote again to Mr Knowles and we had a longish exchange about our life stories, mutual concerns and my impending journey. He’s an interesting man – all the rail buffs know him and his work, and I gather he has stirred up a few of them along the way. One day I might compile a piece about him.

He sent me off to the Gulf with: “Normanton now has no transport function, and is properly equipped and maintained for what it does, rather than living off its fat from its early years, so its true eccentricity has gone. It is of course eccentric (as is the whole line west of Kuranda) in being a preserved railway, with virtually no local population to use it or take an interest in it.” He added that the Normanton-Croydon line was currently having its first re-lay in its 125 years, at a place called Golden Gate near Croydon, where leakages from old gold ore treatment plants had attacked the rails and sleepers. Extraordinary. How did he know that, from 17,000km away? Ken didn’t mention it, or at least I didn’t hear it if he did.

I suggested to John that he might like to read The Traveller, and in his latest message he gave me a nice lift: “Nor does my heart hum! Let me know pls when after the trip it appears on your blog.”

So here it is, John – 33 years in the making. I hope you like P.G. Wodehouse, too. My leg still itches.

A right Burke

After my lament for Bernie’s, I was going to tell you almost immediately about my expedition west of Cairns, way out in the Gulf Country, on a couple of trains called The Gulflander and The Savannahlander – outlandish names, though logical, as I’ll explain – but then I was forced to take some French leave. Somewhere along the way I took on board an unidentified bug of some potency and landed in hospital with a drip in my arm being fed massive doses of antibiotics. Bacterial pneumonia was the verdict . . . the coincidence of which with another recent, but tad more famous, case of pneumonia prompted certain wags of my acquaintance to suggest I hadn’t really been in far north Queensland at all and would soon be the subject of tabloid headlines along the lines of “Secret Presidential Love Tryst”. Cough, cough. Anyway, here I am after a couple of weeks of doing a John Keats impression, back on track and keen to resume my campaign of spreading sweetness and light among my merry band of readers.

The whole odyssey started when I noticed on the website of the Queensland division of the Australian Railway Historical Society a tour to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the completion of the Normanton-Croydon line – an anomalous piece of engineering isolated from the rest of the Queensland rail system. One place on the tour was left, so I grabbed it and some weeks later joined 36 other railfans and oddball tourists in Cairns for eight days and 1400km by road and rail to Karumba and back.

The itinerary was fairly straightforward: head to Kuranda on the famous scenic railway, then get on a bus for a two-day sprint west across the Atherton Tableland and the tropical savannah to Karumba on the Gulf of Carpentaria, ride the Gulflander back from Normanton to Croydon, more bus to bridge the gap to the end of the Queensland rail system at Forsayth, then board the Savannahlander for a two-day run back to Cairns. Along the way we would take in some of the rare geographical features of the land and some of its history, mostly in mining gold and other metals, notably tin and copper.

i-cairnstokarumba

The bus company’s map of the trip

This, it should be emphasised, is no grand tour of Switzerland. There is no majestic scenery, the region is sparsely populated, the towns small to vanishing and the facilities basic. The trains, despite their grandiose names, are a couple of vintage railmotors – DMUs (diesel motor units) in British parlance – renovated for the tourist trade, but not airconditioned, and they trundle bumpily along at barely more than 40kmh for most of the time. This is tremendous fun if you’re that way inclined. And I am, as my loyal followers know.

So what about those names? I suppose ultimately they’re linked to the name of the state . . . if you come from Queensland, you’re a Queenslander. But really they derive from a fleet of trains the then Queensland Government Railways launched in the early 1950s, starting with the Sunlander, a home-built, airconditioned, diesel-hauled sleeper train to ply the 1600km between Brisbane and Cairns. After that came the Westlander (Brisbane to Cunnamulla in the state’s south-west), the Midlander (Rockhampton to Winton in the far mid-west) and the Inlander (Townsville to Mt Isa, across the north of the state). They were fairly slow (the best part of three days between Brisbane and Cairns) but comfortable, fully catered long distance passenger trains – providing Great Train Journeys in every sense of the term. Now they’re all but gone, for the same reasons such trains have disappeared all over the world.

The Gulflander and the Savannahlander are johnny-come-latelys, named solely for the tourist trade, and without doubt would not exist but for that trade. Once a week in each direction for 8-9 months of the year, depending on the Wet season, tourists fill up these old rumblers to try to capture some of the feel of a remote region and of a time when the tracks were actually important in communication and commerce. The irony is that these railways are probably now bigger earners than when they were hauling minerals and cattle out of the region and food, household goods and machinery into it.

They are also unlike most tourist traps in Australia, being filled entirely by Australians, although the Cairns International Airport funnels thousands of Asian tourists into the north every week. As I said, you need to have a certain mindset to enjoy these trips – they’re a long way to go for not much. The home of the Gulflander at Normanton is nearly 700km from Cairns by road or a couple of hours by small aircraft, and once you get there you’re faced with a classic Australian bush town – a number of pubs lining a main street so wide you practically need a cut lunch to cross it, a few rundown public buildings dating from the boom days before the Great War, a basic motel and a camping ground for the hordes of grey nomads on their caravan circumnavigations of Australia. Then the train itself takes five hours to rock and roll 150km almost dead straight through flat, featureless bush to Croydon, a once prosperous (more than a century ago) gold-mining town now seeking to exploit its glory days for the tourists. And you’re still 550km from your five-star hotel in Cairns.

For the average foreign tourist, with three days in Cairns to sample the Great Barrier Reef, the rainforest of the mountains immediately behind Cairns and maybe on the Daintree further north, the Gulf Country just doesn’t cut it – you need to invest a lot of time for what most would perceive as not of much interest. Cobbold Gorge and the Undara Lava Tubes, of which more later, are well worth a visit but I can’t see a busload of Chinese, for example, finding much charm in a train to nowhere, through country where nothing is obvious and you have to be attentive to spot a kangaroo, ubiquitous though they are. On top of that, the accommodation is pretty basic and the food is best described as hearty – chips with everything sums it up. Even most backpackers aren’t interested in going that far for so little bang.

For Australians, however, this is the Great Outback – the place that lives in city-dwellers’ imaginations as the essence of our country. The legendary Australian character was forged in its harsh vastnesses. Males like Chips Rafferty, large, slow talking and as dry as a dead dingo’s donger. Females like Mrs Aeneas Gunn, author of We of the Never Never, resourceful, with hearts as big as the country. Male and female, they are tough people born of a tough country. That’s the story anyway, and that’s what the Gulflander and the Savannahlander cater to.

Well, OK, as an Anglo Australian with a family line dating back to convict days, I buy it. But I know of course it’s a myth and, like most Australians, I’m a city boy, as soft as they come. Alone in the Gulf Country I’d be as clueless as, say, Burke and Wills whose infamous and disastrous 1860-61 expedition from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria reached its northernmost point about 40km west of Normanton.

Here, just off the main road, the Savannah Way, the four-man group literally camped by a billabong under the shade of a coolabah tree, cut off from reaching the Gulf of Carpentaria by about 50km of salt pans and mangrove swamp. Burke and Wills tried to push through, got about half way but never saw the sea.

burke-wills-monument-tiltedA brass plate fastened to a concrete plinth summarises what happened: “This monument marks the site of Camp No.119 of the 1860/61 Burke and Wills expedition, occupied on Saturday 9th Feb 1861 by Robert O’Hara Burke, William John Wills, John King and Charley Gray. On Sunday the 10th February, Burke and Wills left on the attempt to journey to the Gulf of Carpentaria, returning on Tuesday the 12th February. All four abandoned the camp next day for the return journey to Coopers Creek (depot 75) and home to Melbourne. During the return journey, all died with the exception of King who survived with the assistance of a friendly Aboriginal tribe.”

camp-119-sign-tilted

The rules for visitors set out on this signboard have this advice: “Crocodiles live in the river. The small pointy nosed guys are freshwater crocodiles. They prefer fish to humans. The guys with the blunter snouts are the nasty ones. They do like humans . . . for breakfast, lunch and dinner”

Standing at Camp 119 a few weeks ago, reading the information boards erected on the site and trying to discern the blazes the explorers left in surrounding trees – nearly gone after 155 years – it dawned on me just how stupid or arrogant or both was Burke, an Irishman trained by the British army but late of the Austrian army. For six months he had led his party across the length of Australia, through verdant pastures, healthy bush and semi-desert to the gulf savannah, from spring in the south through summer to the Wet, but he, as commander, had apparently learnt very little about what the country might provide. The party relied almost entirely on the supplies they’d carried from Melbourne. One information board at Camp 119 remarks that their attempts to live off the land had mixed results. Given what happened to them, you’d have to say this is an understatement.

 

The country around Camp 119 is harsh all right. But conditions, while probably far from pleasant, given the onrushing Wet season, must still have been quite sustainable, with good water and plenty of wildlife. Another signboard states: “Burke’s team was unaware that they were passing through a region rich in food and resources in which Aboriginal clans had lived for thousands of years without either beasts of burden or bags of flour to weigh them down.” They did meet up with Aborigines but apparently messed up whatever they were taught about indigenous food.

I suppose Burke was in such a hurry to turn back south because he had only a third of his food supplies left, and maybe he sensed that the Wet might strand them there (although, having never been in the tropical north before, he can’t have had much idea what the season would be like). Even so, why not sit for a few days at least, regather your strength, save your supplies by shooting a little game, catching a fish or two and applying what you’d learnt from six months in the bush; maybe try to get some advice from the locals? No, not Burke. He did not understand that, although this environment is unforgiving, it is also one of great plenty.

I was stunned by Camp 119, and remain so. It was the unexpected highlight of the trip. Hitherto the story of Burke and Wills had been one of those Boys Own tales of heroic failure, a magnificent folly that ended tragically. But as I stood there under the coolabah trees, the “heroic” and “magnificent” melted away and I was left with “failure”, “folly” and “tragic” . . . and an overwhelming sense that it need not have been so.

Nevertheless, the Burke and Wills expedition is part of the myth the tourists come to experience. As the signboard says: “Burke might not have been a successful explorer but he left us a legacy. He had a goal, which he and his companions strove to achieve. These were the formative years of the spirit of a nation.”

All right, I’ll buy that one, too. But for days afterwards, as we got on with our train tour, I kept asking myself and my travelling companions: how was it that colonial boys – not soft modern city folk like us – could trek through the bush for half a year and not learn enough about it at least to survive? I was still metaphorically shaking my head as we chugged back towards Cairns on the Gulflander and the Savannahlander.

 Next: Lonely Rails in the Gulf Country.

Lament for Bernie’s

I’d like to be able to say that when in Cairns everybody goes to Bernie’s. But I can’t, because it is my melancholy duty to report that Bernie’s is no more – not so much in the dead parrot sense, because the place is still there, but the name has changed, and more besides. And anyway, even if before this everybody did in fact go to Bernie’s, the place would be packed with shady characters, Humphrey Bogart would whinge you played it for her, you can play it for me, and Cairns would have had to change its name to Casablanca.

But what I am reporting does amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I went to Bernie’s, oh only last Thursday night. On Friday morning I walked past and snapped a pic of the cheerful red sign: “Bernie’s Jazz . Piano Café”. On Saturday evening I walked past again and the sign had gone – only a red painted blank was left. Out front was a sandwich board advertising “Pop & Co Tapas & Music Bar”.

It was a Twilight Zone moment but, well, I should have taken the hint on Thursday. An old newspaper pal who has lived in Cairns for many a long year told me during the course of the evening that the place had changed hands and I noticed that, indeed, etched into the brand new front window was the name Pop & Co.

Still it was a shock. Put what you like on the window, you can’t cancel the idea of Bernie’s, a jazz bar only slightly younger than the pyramids. It was the sort of place that on many a night Bernie and the band played As Time Goes By – and it’s to be fervently hoped they will again, because, for the moment anyway, they play all the standards. The other night some veteran chanteuse belted out, among others, Makin’ Whoopee and The Girl from Ipanema. Bernie was still plugging away on his double bass, along with a drummer and guitarist who looked like the same old swingers from the good old days (i.e. the day before yesterday). The grand piano had gone, to be replaced by an electronic keyboard and a young fellow who, thankfully, seemed to know what he was doing.

The crowd was appreciative but it has to be admitted they were mostly early diners and early going-to-bedders. The bulk of patrons at Bernie’s has tended to be, like me, of a certain age. Who the Pop & Co crowd turns out to be is another matter entirely. Clearly the new owners have a view on that.

They’ve given the joint a facelift. It used to be a single shop front and the band played in the window. Now the band plays down the back and the crowd gets a little air to breathe through a new facade. It’s brighter, too – but I don’t know whether that’s an improvement. For me, bars named Bernie’s (or Rick’s) are supposed to be a bit dingy, so you can get down and dirty movie-style for a while.

This is the place where – and, no, you can’t stop me if you’ve heard it – I walked in out of a tropical February night and told the young barman I’d like something long and cold. Without a pause, or even a grin, he said: “How about a walk in Antarctica?” This has become one of my favourite yarns and I figure that I’ll have covered most of the world with it before the Great Barman calls time. With Bogart-cool repartee like that and Bernie the bass player thumping away at the old stand, Pop & Co deserves at least a fair go.

So when you go to Cairns, you need to call in at Bernie’s, sorry Pop & Co, if only to see that the town centre is not just a collection of eateries and shops of varying quality filled with backpackers and other budget tourists. Bernie’s holds out the promise that, underneath the touristy skin and a certain amount of tropical seediness, a real heart is beating.

Last year when I was there, I remember, some young fellow turned up at Bernie’s with his sax and asked to sit in, and of course the band made room for him. It means that in Cairns somewhere, tucked away in places I haven’t bothered to look, other musos will be playing their hearts out – because they have to. Musos don’t come out of nowhere.

Oh, why was I in Cairns? I am on another train adventure – west from Cairns on the far north Queensland coast to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back. Watch this space.