She’s brave, The Russian. Opted for a road trip with the Tin Lid and me willingly, which was fortunate as I was relying on her vehicle, and, as it turns out, she makes a mean pot of earl grey as dawn lights the scritchy underside of acrylic hotel blankets.
It wasn’t cheap, this patronage. It came with a gutteral accent and the Killing Eve soundtrack on repeat, interspersed with Dasha impersonations. But who doesn’t need a Russian in their lives? [Note: The Russian is actually Welsh but is deliciously dramatic, and frankly, the comedy circuit might be missing its star turn. Ed.]
The road in said trip was a glorious respite from the city’s confines, studded with roadkill, low-slung sky stories, the endless hum of tyres on tar and the slake of cold beer at each day’s end. And in the slight of a winter sun, Silver City glinted promisingly from 1000 kays out, red dirt thick-coating the footwells from just past Nyngan.
This is desert country, thick with deliverance and dirt. It creeps into everything, from folds of skin to attitudes, a crunchy layer of separation. Ian Parkes wrote of the outback landscape seizing you, but this wild sparsity does more than that. It hijacks you, twirls you into another reality like a renegade tango lead, foot-stomping you that way then this while holding you in a firm embrace. And when it has had its fun, it delivers you, wide-eyed and stinking into the arms of a new understanding, of spangled night skies and rusted treasure, endless hours, dirt on the breeze and the tick tick of life baking and cooling in an endless cycle far greater than humanity.
This is Wiljakali country. With a history spanning up to 45,000 years, the Wiljakali have strong ties to the Barkindji people of the Darling River and Menindee Lakes, travelling ancient routes captured in song to regularly visit each other. The Wiljakali are joint managers of Mutawintji National Park, the first national park to be returned to its traditional owners in NSW, and the Wiljakali Aboriginal Corporation routinely negotiates mining deals, and Native Title Land Claims in this region. Theirs is a story as ancient as time.
At the end of a day that stretched from a dust-strewn dawn into a miraged surrealism featuring emus, Broken Hill is a welcome sight, despite her hill no longer being broken, or even a hill. A faded showgirl with fake foliage dangling around deafened ears, a slash of greasepaint sliding south onto chipped dentures, she is resolutely attractive in the soft late-arvo sunlight.
Billed as an oasis in the desert, this dusty queen is a sanctuary from the storm and a town with a past. Gridded streets with gritty names, legal year-round Two Up games and a pub swarming with the ghosts of drag queens departed, her history reverberates with hard-bitten words like workers’ solidarity, blacklegs, unionism, radicalism, ‘viragos with tar pots’ and lead poisoning.
Known as the Silver City, hers is a story that glitters but at its heart is a darkness that spools out like blackened thread. From the dank bowels of a mined earth to sequin-sprayed glory and back to the inevitable inequality that striates so many outback towns, Broken Hill has a two-faced tale.
A jagged scar in the Barrier Ranges, the town is eponymously named. Eagle-eyed boundary rider Charles Rasp discovered silver ore in a topographical wound, and the rest is history. The original miners of the Hill, the Syndicate of Seven, went on to build their operations into some the world’s largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton (formerly Broken Hill Proprietary Company Limited), Rio Tinto and Pasminco.
“The miners dug silver from the barren land in scorching summer heat or numbing winter cold, living in tents and rudimentary shacks, their families regularly threatened with typhoid.”
What is left of the Line of Lode ore body that dissects the town is an all-surveying silver skimp dump that slithers and creaks with mercurial intensity. It’s the most obvious place to gain some perspective over this settlement of multiple personalities.
Ruined mine works squat amid the blackened spoil, their memory a mournful echo of the men whose spirits haunt this bleak place, yet the contemporary rusted metal memorial that crests this rubble is fitting. With wind howling through jagged steel and a wrought sky churning above it is the antithesis to the tomb beneath in which men tumbled to their deaths like dominos.
Rock falls, “suffocation in slime”, septicaemia, crushing, shaft fall, electrocution, explosion, air blast, toxic fumes, “no details” – the toll is heavy, 800 lives and counting, captured and mourned with flags and roses.
The conditions, dire at best, deadly in the main, fomented into some of the bitterest industrial disputes Australia has ever seen, and Broken Hill became known for its political radicalism. Violent clashes in 1892, 1909 and 1919 led to the formation of the Barrier Industrial Council in 1923, a block of 18 trade unions designed to protect the lives of workers and their families.
“Mass picketing [was] reinforced by the militancy of women armed with axe and broom handles, and who led foray after foray against blacklegs and shift bosses with vigorous violence, to keep the scabs out.”
This militancy, factionalism and “commie” behaviour led to the introduction of the eight-hour day, the 35-hour week and penalty rates. It was driven in part by a storm of rebel women: they led marches on horseback, gathered in their masses, openly insulted police officers and established their own hospitals, and theirs was the guiding hand in the incredible social activism that is the bedrock of this remote outpost.
It is still a worker’s world in the Hill, where unionism, efficacy and fairness are measured with pride, and schooners sunk with the privilege gained from a hard-won day. The Social Democratic Club in Argent Street, the Working Men’s Club, Trades Hall on Sulphide Street with its iron mansard roof and stained-glass roses, the Cameron Pipe Band Hall, Barrier Industrial Unions Brass Band, and the Workies Club – these are the stalwarts of this fight, a fight that is adorned with roses. Why scented florals? Perhaps they relate to Polish immigrant Rose Schneiderman’s rallying cry for women in 1911, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera house, when she said, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”.
At the heart of this story is The Palace Hotel on Argent Street. The spectres that flit around the bar carry the scent of roses, along with a greasy boiled-mince hue. It’s hardly surprising: they’ve been here a while – miners, wanderers, unionists and temperance ministers, grey nomads travelling no further and disaffected drag queens that flounce around their forever home. Rumours swirl that ladders sunk deep in the mines led to trapdoors in the basement of the hotel, though even The Russian is unwilling to verify such haunted curios.
The Tin Lid wastes no time making himself at home. With its curious mix of mid-century vinyl and shearling carpet, hand-painted walls and pebbledash bathroom splashbacks, The Palace invites you to step back in time. For The Russian, the ghosts inspire her to linger on the stairs and have a chat. The Tin Lid is taken by the shadows of the balcony lacework, and the echoes of Shining-esque corridors that unspool into the nothing…
Sticky with neglect, dust piled in sorrowful corners, she groans in pain when you step on her aching joints and sighs at night as she creaks into rest. Threadbare halls offer little comfort in the sprint to the shared baths, the pipes clank and boil menacingly and handpainted wallpaper is both a scintillating talking point for a young mind and a job of such magnitude in today’s must-have-now immediacy it is humbling.
Built as a coffee palace in 1889 by the Temperance Movement to abide by their vision of “a place for fine dining and coffee”, The Palace was set apart from the melee of less salubrious drinking establishments in the Hill for 1000 long days. But by 1892, this course was deemed singularly unprofitable, and the old girl embarked on the six-o’clock swill with gusto, a tradition that has extended to an ‘any-hour-it’s-open swill’ ever since, complete with crinoline curtains and flammable bedspreads:
The Russian dragged us here, muttering Slavic potato curses beneath her breath. A muralist of repute, she had heard about the walls of The Palace, which are garlanded with paintings that steal both your eye and your curiosity. One-time owner Mario Celotto began the tradition, and then called for artists to match his ceiling rendition of Boticelli’s Venus.
Indigenous artist Gordon Wayne accepted the challenge and, so impressed was Mario with his talent, Gordon was commissioned to paint almost all the hotel’s blank walls with Renaissance-inspired landscapes, each with water coursing through it, to reinforce the hotel’s credibility as ‘an oasis in the outback’.
They are beautiful and impressive, albeit with a curious bent – a face contorted, a hand splayed, an exoticism rarely seen in these parts, caught in the delicate blossom of a wattle or the knowing eyes of a mermaid…
Shirl from the bar knows about exotic though. Coiled into the very fabric of the place is a flamboyance and a ribald blue-ness that is coyly demanding, equal parts sexual liberation and tack-o-rama. The enduring legacy of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, much of which was filmed at The Palace in 1994 and which continues to act as the frilliest drawcard in town, has entrusted itself to the stories here.
The Priscilla Suite on the first floor, where the characters frocked up for the night, is planted firmly behind a waterfall. It is also resolutely shuttered to those of us in the cheap seats, but The Russian has contacts and the slyest of deals rewards us with a glimpse within… and one fewer Cuban cigars.
Never one to let an opportunity get away from her, Broken Hill clutched Priscilla to her well-padded breast and spawned the now annual Broken Heel Festival, which features wall-to-floor divas and spangled sass in homage to Mitzi Del Bra, Bernadette Bassenger, Felicia Jollygoodfellow, Bob and Shirl from the bar, who is a local.
Fortunately, she is yet to embrace the potential commodification of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright, and the 1971 movie that followed, which may be the most disturbed story of its era. Set in a remote outback mining town, many believe Bundanyabba is a thinly disguised portrait of Broken Hill. The Australian Gothic undertones that lace this depiction paint a tale so bleak as to be terrorising, yet many also believe it is far from fictional.
The Silver City has a tarnished glint, a patina that sheds like sloughed skin. The many personalities of Willyama, as this land was once known, are gendered, sexualised, politicised and commercialised, rolling in on each wave of ‘change’, and often at odds with each other.
The Russian notes, wryly, that this is a story indistinguishable from countless other outback towns, and she is right, as ever. But this old dame, with her monogrammed pub carpets and etched glass, row upon row of workers cottages lined up like teeth, ornate gates and filigree lacework – the corsets of age – all set against the backdrop of an ever-extended horizon across red dirt and big skies… in her truest form she regal, the stories of time etched deep in wrinkled skin.
She has outlived her names and altered her course, changed her perspective and flipped her audience. She is a shapeshifter, transitioning from one reality to another, while keeping the ghosts close to her breast.
Willyama. You are Wiljakali country, always will be. But you are also a queen in drag, your many faces the entertainment for a crowd that bays for more: the outback rogue, the wealthy widow, the mining magnate, the sequined showgirl and the back-up dancer in someone else’s film.
They all wear roses.
On a side note, The Russian says you owe her money.