Interviews · Writing exercises

Heaven, hell, or just another town

Originally written as a longform piece for a university journalism subject.

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“Maryborough’s like my own personal hell.”

We share a sad half-smile over Skype screens, the images lagging a second behind any noise.
Georgie Silckerodt and I met almost ten years ago in our small Christian high school, both pre-teens who never quite ‘fit in’ with our town and it’s culture.

My living 200km away from Maryborough to Melbourne is still considered momentous to locals when I return home– I was served by a former classmate in the supermarket who asked me ‘why the hell [I’d] come back’ when I stopped through town to conduct interviews. My migration to the city is dwarfed by Georgie’s relocation to the Canmore mountains in Canada, following love across the globe.

It’s been a few years since we last spoke with voices, and we undertake the almost customary where-are-they-now’s of old classmates – some dead, some hospitalised for addiction and abuse, some successful, but the majority still living in the town they were born.

Maryborough is more than it’s boundary line and official population; the town has a tendency to absorb smaller surrounding communities and their inhabitants, becoming a hub for the populations of one street towns to travel to for work and essentials. Buses flow in from all directions each morning, dropping children at either the large P-12 public education complex or the Christian primary or secondary school on the other side of town, with some kids boarding the bus at 7am to make it to school each day from as far as 90km away.

I’m the second generation of my family to grow up in one of the surrounding towns, Dunolly, with a population of 900 and a primary school boasting a total of 84 students last year. I was raised with the expectation that after finishing high school, I would leave the town in some capacity. It wasn’t a command, but a plea from my mother to either continue my education or simply go out and explore the world. Not everyone leaves the area though, and not everyone wants to – but there are also those who leave only to return again. I found locals who have had varying life experiences, and talked to them about their life and opinions of the town.

The Crameri’s have been a part of Maryborough since 1878, when Elias Crameri and his family made the journey from Switzerland to settle in the booming gold town, buying the house his ancestors still live in to this day. I spoke to Bernie Crameri on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the timber and hardware store he runs with his brother Jim. We settled into the office, tucked next to the break room and pine shelving, to talk about the town. Bernie sits in front of a phone and three computer screens, one showing the CCTV of the shop outside – at one point he glances up and sees a growing line of customers, and shakes his head.

“Hang on a minute. I can’t stand that.”

I watch on the screen as Bernie strides over to an empty register and begins calling over customers, shrinking the line in record time. I barely have time to take in the details of the room, with walls a makeshift tribute to Bernie’s youngest son Stewart, a rising star in the AFL over the past few years. The lunch room is decorated with images of Stewart playing for Essendon, separated by a wall from the more recent newspaper clippings and photos of him playing for his current team. A signed hat and shoe sit on a filing cabinet underneath a large map of the Crameri’s original town of San Carlos in Switzerland, creating a visualisation of how far the family has come. I’ve never met Bernie before today, but his younger brother Jim has been good friends with my mother since I was a child, and the resemblance is undeniable. At 55, Bernie stands at a bit over 6 feet tall, with a broad Australian accent I’ve come to associate with the majority of men in Maryborough. He’s commanding, but without seeming to intend it. As we talk more about community and the role of the church in his life, he raises an eyebrow at me and says “I’ll see you there tonight”, and my agnostic self instantly agrees as if there was never any other answer.

Family history is clearly a passion as I’m taken on a tour of photographs on the walls (the ones not of Stewart) and told their stories. “This is Eli and his wife, she’s a nice looker, on their 50th anniversary.” He points at a photograph where the now familiar Eli and wife are surrounded by 50 years worth of their lineage, roughly 25 younger Crameri’s crowded into the space surrounding the couple.

Maryborough has been in the news for two things recently: our sports stars, and the disadvantaged community behind them. The DOTE report listed Maryborough in the top 5 most disadvantaged communities in the state, with higher rates of unemployment, domestic violence, disability, criminal rates, and low family income.
Bernie had never heard of the investigation, and his eyebrows raised again at the information.

“I know there’s people disadvantaged out there but I don’t see a lot of that… I think there’s great opportunities in Maryborough, but to take them up you need to know about the framework and see what support is out there.”

From personal experience, it can be easy to avoid the issues in a town like Maryborough, where many can be hidden behind closed doors– mental health issues, drug abuse, and domestic violence are invisible if you’re simply taking a stroll down High Street.

Rowena Butler grew up in Carisbrook, 6km outside of Maryborough, where she stayed until moving to Melbourne to study accounting after school. She returned to her hometown mid 2013 after spending 17 years living in London and travelling the globe.

After spending 2 years back in the area, the results of the DOTE report barely surprised her:

“The disadvantage of the town is a lot more prevalent, you can see the degradation of housing and a lot of the socioeconomic factors, the way people dress, talk, look, eating habits, all of those […] Maryborough’s been a struggling postcode for the last 10-15 years in terms of employment and living conditions, and I think that puts it in a more statistical way – I never felt any of those things [when she was younger] and I do now as an adult, and I’m not sure if that’s a difference as an adult or if it just wasn’t like that before.”

Talking to the well postured Rowena, as she balances 2-year-old Henry on her knee and speaks with a slight mash of Australian and upper class London accent, I can see some of the ways she may feel an outsider in a town where many will never leave Australia.

I visited Rowena’s house on a Sunday afternoon, and we worked together to encourage her three eldest children (aged 2, 3 and 4) to spend some time on the trampoline while we watched through the large window and she walked me through her family’s journey back to Australia. Living in a London flat with her English husband Duncan and three children, they were becoming pushed for space and decided to take the opportunity to come back and visit her Australian family for a while and save some money. ‘Then I ended up getting pregnant with Elizabeth, so that’s why we’re still here’.

Growing up in the sports-crazed subculture Maryborough plays host to, Rowena remembers a youth of horse and bike riding, living at the swimming pool in summer, and endless team sports, continued to an adulthood in London where she discovered rowing and open sea swimming.

‘I was quite sporty so [Maryborough] was good for me. I suppose if you’re more creative or introverted, it may not have been quite as positive growing up here’.

Maryborough’s team sport culture is ingrained from childhood for most growing up in the town, and the path that can lead to success has never been more emphasised than it is this year, with local boy Matt Dellavadova playing in the U.S. among some of the worlds biggest names in basketball, the town sign changing to ‘Dellyborough’ in tribute.

Rowena emphasised the toll of the transition from bustling London back to the quiet town of her childhood, largely felt by both her and her husband.

‘We’ve been here two years and I would still say neither of us feels like we fit in or have met loads of people in a similar mindset. I miss the multicultural nature of London, and the worldly outlook of individuals– Australians can be quite bigoted and closed minded.’

I encountered an endless stream of casual racism, homophobia and misogyny growing up in the rural area, and it is accepted in a very different manner than tends to be the case in larger areas and populations, accepted as part of learned culture and passed down through generations. Some of it is beginning to be challenged in a cultural shift, with a campaign discouraging violence against women and a recent higher multicultural representation in the region having long lasting effects.

Georgie Silckerodt, of German heritage, had her windows broken and Nazi symbols painted onto her house by vandals semi-regularly.

‘When I think of disadvantage, that’s what I remember. It’s a witches pot of bad things, lack of education, lack of choice, lack of motivation.’

Out of the three interviewees, Georgie has had the most negative experience with the town and its often conservative nature, particularly at our high school where conforming seemed non-optional. During my own schooling there I was told by the vice-principal that ‘only religion lets you have morals, and [my] mother raising me without a faith was akin to child abuse’. For a number of the region’s youth, it’s a matter of simply surviving with as much of yourself intact as possible.

Georgie’s spent her post-Maryborough time traveling the world, falling in love with strangers, working for Heston Blumenthal in London and moving to the other side of the world to start anew. ‘I can’t believe the scrutiny we were under our whole lives. Now I could shave my head tonight and nobody would give a shit in the morning. This feels more like real life I guess.’

Maryborough is neither the greatest town in the world, nor the worst. Privilege can allow you to ignore evidence of disadvantage, just as can be done anywhere else in the world.

Bernie has no plans to leave the town he was born in, but he emphasises his need for visits to Melbourne as a complement. ‘We get the best of both worlds, and I think you need that’. Rowena’s plans for the future are still vague, although she’s sure they’re not planning to stay in the town forever. Georgie wants to one day return to Australia and finish studying at RMIT, and considers her family home as her ‘true home’, but swears she will never return to Maryborough.

Each person has a vastly different perspective on a town they’ve called home at some point or another, however temporarily. Even sitting in DOTE’s top 5%, Maryborough still isn’t unloveable­ – over 7000 people currently live there and are carrying out their own special connections with the town, be it one of love, hate, or any other emotion.

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