So what is it about Canowindra, a townlet of fewer than 2000 people in central New South Wales, that it can host a sophisticated dinner for 280 people in its historic main street, with most of the food grown within 100 miles of its little CBD?
What is it about this small country town that it has so many art galleries, chic cafes, restaurants and award winning wine cellars, an up-market milliner, an interior design studio, a classy second-hand book shop, a baroque music festival, an international Balloon Glow, regular recitals by Sydney Conservatorium musicians, a Flickerfest season, and even the extraordinary Silos Project?
Is it something unique to the district, a kind of cultural terroir, or is it something else?
I’ll offer a few explanatory hypotheses shortly, but first, let me tell you about that 100-mile dinner on 7 March 2015, Canowindra’s celebration of Slow Food and the civilised arts of good wine, good music and good dancing in historic Gaskill Street. A mini-festival organised and hosted by Canowindra@Home and their many volunteers, and inspired by The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, the bestseller by Canadian locovores Alisa Smith and JB MacKinnon.
The Canowindra@Home committee wore their hearts on — well, if not their sleeves for this event, then certainly on their menu: think organic, biodynamic, free range, fair trade, low food miles, carbon neutrality, zero-waste, and, of course, the over-riding value of eco-sustainability. All those Think Global/Act Local ethics so many of us embrace even though we still can’t actually live 24/7.
The town’s historic shop facades were still glowing in the setting sun as my friend Susi and I sipped our first sparkling chardies. Two long rows of tables stretched down the centre of Gaskill Street, each draped in pristine white, and set with big white china plates and parcels of metal cutlery wrapped in heavy white paper napkins. On the tables, bottles of locally produced olive oil and caramelised balsamic vinegar, fresh crusty bread, fragrant dipping oil, and tin cans of living thyme on milled planks of Callitris columellaris, our inland white Cyprus-pine.
And the menu? All Mod-Oz fusion by the chefs of Bathurst’s Restaurant 9inety 2wo, each course enthusiastically served by young volunteers in metro café black to the Retro-Oz fusion sounds of Trouble With Johnny (TWJ). Quark first, served with candied beetroot, pistachios, honey and crisp wafers; then pork belly on celeriac puree with red cabbage, apple slaw, and apple, thyme and pepper reduction; lamb neck on homemade hummus and roast chickpeas with chargrilled eggplant, silver beet and olive oil; followed by the exception to the 100-mile rule, chocolate and hazelnut torte made from cocoa beans grown in the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, with poached pear, salted caramel and popcorn. Local wines to match, and dancing in the street. All very Gourmet Traveller, although no good for vegetarians, for whom Deberger’s Indian restaurant remained open until late.
And all very elitist too, as Slow Food still is, and very majority ‘White’. (No, I’m not referring to the table cloths, napkins and chairs this time).
I mentioned the diners’ overwhelming ‘Whiteness’ to Bob Craven, one of the dinner organisers, the following day, and compared this apparent homogeneity to the multicultural diversity I have experienced at so many cultural events in Australia’s capital cities. Bob offered a very simple explanation: the majority ‘Whiteness’ of the dinner guests was an artifact of the emailing list he used to promote the event. Most of the people on that list were there because they liked the Cowra-Canowindra region’s dry red and white wines, a preference associated more with ‘White’ people than with other groups. People of Chinese descent, for example, tended to have much sweeter palates, so were very under-represented on his mailing list, Bob explained.
Another contributing factor to this overwhelming ‘Whiteness’ was, of course, the general reluctance of non-‘White’ people to cross the Blue Mountains into inland NSW.
All of which made Canowindra’s 100-mile dinner look like the rural rump of 1950s ‘White Australia’, notwithstanding the welcome sprinkling of 21st century multiculturals within my gaze, including the Indian-Australians quietly watching from outside their restaurant, and a young hipster of Asian descent who was the best mover on the dance floor.
Yet if you’d examined us ‘Whitefellas’ a bit closer you’d have found us to be far from culturally homogenous. We divided somewhat fuzzily into at least two identifiable groups which I’ll call Old and New Rural. Susi and I were seated at the frontier between these tribes.
To my right, Old Rural/Old School Tie: a bloke who’d spent the day calling Rugby Union and was now looking forward to his next big sporting event, the Millamolong Polo Carnival. He and his wife grew grapes on their farm, but, like so many other producers, had lost hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past few years, because of low prices, low yields on old vines, and frosts at the wrong times, he told me. But better times ahead, he hoped, because he and a few business mates had recently invested in a new vineyard and planted it with varieties more suited to contemporary palates. When these young vines start producing ….
To my left, Canowindra’s New Rural. The bloke across the table from me, for example, had come to the district as a professional agronomist. He now had a block in Canowindra’s visionary community titled Rivers Road Organic Farms where he grew many of the certified organic vegetables served at the dinner. He was also a bit of a celebrity amongst foodies in the Central West.
Next to me, a tree-changer born and raised in the working class suburb of Redfern, in inner-city Sydney, who moved to Canowindra with his wife more than a decade ago to live their rural dream. He was also into Rugby. Didn’t matter which code though, Union or League, he didn’t discriminate he said. And he’d give anyone a hand in his adopted community. He’d helped hang the paper lanterns in Gaskill Street that afternoon with patients from Lyndon House, the local drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, for example, and was very supportive of them. He also proudly boasted that Canowindra was ‘the Gay Capital of the Central West.’
The Gay Capital, eh? Was that the key to understanding this townlet’s success as a hub of rural creativity, innovation and excellence?
In Rise of the Creative Class, Urbanist Richard Florida had reported a strong correlation between a community’s cultural and economic vitality and the number of resident LGBTs, I recalled. This link didn’t mean that all LGBTs were necessarily creative, entrepreneurial, business savvy and cosmopolitan, he emphasised, but because their presence signaled something fundamentally important to creative people when they were thinking about relocating: that this community was, in general, tolerant, open minded, and comfortable with difference.
‘Many highly creative people, regardless of ethnic background or sexual orientation, grew up feeling like outsiders, different in some way from most of their schoolmates,’ Florida rightly claimed. ‘When they are sizing up a new company and community, acceptance of diversity and of gays in particular is a sign that reads ‘non-standard people welcome here.’’
In my experience, however, such a welcome might be more characteristic of inland communities which had attracted a core of New Rurals with progressive values. Many Old Rurals still find diversity a bit challenging and cling to antiquated prejudices about people who are different from them. (I overheard one Old Rural talking about ‘Abos’, for example.)
But small inland towns need more than open-mindedness and ‘Non-Standard People Welcome’ flags to attract the so-called Creative Class. They also need what Richard Florida calls ‘quality of place’, that feel-good mix of authenticity, outdoor amenities, natural beauty, cultural heritage, and opportunities to live richly creative and fulfilling lives rather than ho-hum mainstream. They also need relatively low real estate prices and a stock of relatively cheap rental properties, as many other commentators have pointed out. Canowindra offers both. What is probably even more important to this little town’s creative vitality though is its relative closeness to the regional centres of Cowra, Orange and Bathurst, and to several regional universities and TAFE colleges. Because, as Florida acknowledges, ‘The rural economy has the same fundamental drivers as the metro economy: access to knowledge institutions and the clustering and concentration of talent and skill. … The harsh reality of our time is that proximity to major metro economic centers is more important than ever before.’
So … the New Rural values of tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance of diversity, the presence of LGBTs, ‘quality of place’, low real estate prices, and proximity to larger towns and tertiary institutions are all contributing to Canowindra’s creative vitality. Bet’s throw another causal theory into the barrel. Wine!
Two thousand years ago the imperial Romans reckoned that wine signified civilisation, or humanitas. People who quaffed it in restrained quantities were civilised. Those who did not were barbarians, like those pesky beer-drinking Germanic tribes north of The Alps and the River Rhine.
We might laugh at the hubris of these ancients now, but no-one could doubt the multi-dimensional benefits that viticulture and viniculture bring to small inland communities, in terms of what is now often called human, social and cultural capital. Even though the wine industry’s economics can be shaky at times, it still attracts educated, well connected and highly skilled people to the inland who can inspire new visions for the future in small communities, and nurture new capacities to make these visions real. Such is the civilising power of the grape.
We have no equivalent of Europe’s Alps or the great Rhine River in central and western New South Wales, but we do have a couple of equally defining frontiers between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’. Take the Blue Mountains, for example, that Sandstone Curtain which physically divides the sparsely populated inland from the east coast where more than 85 percent of Australians live. To many Coastals we Inlanders are all ‘barbarians’, of course, and many country people feel the same about the millions on the other side of the Great Divide!
Our other conspicuous frontier between ‘civilisation’ and ‘barbarism’ is the Newell, a national highway which slices through the inland from Tocumwal in Victoria to Goondiwindi on the NSW-Queensland border, at a distance of around 350 km from the coast, or around 4.5 hours driving time. On one side of this thin grey line there’s more rain, richer soil, milder climate, higher crop yields, more people, better coffee, a couple of towns big enough to call themselves cities, and yes, excellent wine! And it’s its close enough to Sydney for at least a few of those city folk to cross the Great Divide for a weekend retreat. On the other side, less of everything ‘civilised’ and too many kilometres to drive!
So … another explanatory hypothesis to help us understand why Canowindra has more than its fair share of Creatives: it’s on the ‘civilised’ side of the Newell Highway. Indeed, any town on this more ‘civilised’ side of this frontier has a much greater chance of supporting strong Creative or Cultural Industries sectors than anywhere on the ‘barbarian’ side. Because geography still matters. Even with the internet we Creative still need face-to-face flesh and blood connectivities.
But Bob Craven, one of Canowindra’s Creatives and co-owner, with his wife Marg, of Taste Canowindra, has an alternative and equally valid hypothesis. ‘It’s all about the myth,’ he told me.
Bob is a local boy. He went to Canowindra primary school, to high school in Cowra, and then escaped rurality to university in Sydney. ‘I felt this place was a hole, to be honest, when I left at 18,’ he confessed. ‘It was really reactionary. It was extremely conservative. Very right wing. Not particularly tolerant of anybody much, except for picket fence 1950s ‘White’, you know!’
University was an escape from such conformity for Bob. In 1970 he got a job as the University of NSW’s cultural affairs officer and became increasingly involved with Sydney’s theatre scene. By 1971 he was doing music theatre with the PACT Theatre Cooperative, and assisting his friend, Terry McGee, with his rock version of the Ibsen/Grieg classic, Peter Gynt. ‘This production included such luminaries as Renee Geyer and her band, Sun, and John J Francis with The Cleves, with the charismatic Johnny Allen as the Troll King,’ he said. He could never have enjoyed such opportunities he had remained in the bush.
Around this time the Australian Union of Students’ executive decided to move their annual Aquarius Festival off-campus — so festival organisers, including Johnny Allen, Graeme Dunstan, and Col James, went looking for a new venue. They found Nimbin, a depressed little dairy town on NSW’s north coast. Bob joined the Aquarius crew in October 1972 to do the festival’s marketing and publishing: ‘I produced two publications, Grass Roots, and Grass Leaves, which were designed to grow the festival and energise the volunteers.’
Nimbin was a derelict town in the early ’70s, with a main street full of empty shops. ‘There were dozens of towns like that on the north coast,’ Bob recalled. All of them dying because the dairy industry had collapsed following Britain’s entry into the Common Market. But, to the Aquarius Creatives, those empty houses, shops and butter factories were exciting opportunities. And anything seemed possible then. Even an Aquarius Festival in rural Nimbin. Even the transformation of this very conservative little town into the counter-culture capital of Australia.
Over the next decade Bob Craven watched Nimbin change as his fellow Aquarians rented or bought up the local real estate, and established new businesses, new institutions and new social formations. One of the first land sales was especially memorable. ‘Terry Magee turned up at the festival and sold people this idea that there’s a thousand acre property for sale called Tuntable Falls, let’s buy it,’ Bob said. ‘He got about 400 people to commit a $200 joining fee, and $200 of shares and it was enough to buy the land.’ And so began Nimbin’s first commune.
Over the following years, Bob witnessed the revival not only of Nimbin, but the entire North Coast, including Mullumbimby and Byron Bay. ‘You could have got a beach-side place at Byron in 1972 for $100 a night,’ he reminisced. ‘You’d pay $5,000 a night for it in peak time now!’
Bob credits the late Col James, an architect, for inspiring the revitalisation of Nimbin and other north coast towns, and Johnny Allen for training and motivating the Aquarius volunteers ‘who then generated and perpetuated the myth’. (Allen is currently foundation director of the Australian Centre for Event Management at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). A book he co-authored years ago, Festivals and Special Event Management, is still a must-read for all aspiring festival organisers.)
The Aquarius Festival and its off-shoots attracted thousands of visitors and new settlers to the small North Coast communities at a time when the federal government was spending millions of dollars to encourage industries to ‘decentralise’ from the cities to the twin towns of Albury-Wodonga. To Bob this was a total waste of money. ‘The way to decentralise is to inspire people,’ he insisted. To offer people a new vision, a new story about a better way to live. Like he and his mates did in Nimbin. As he and his fellow Creatives are now doing in Canowindra.
Because … ‘It’s all about the myth.’
What do you reckon?
[Coming sometime soon on this blog, new posts about the Forbes Arts & Culture Symposium, the Lambing Flats Chinese Festival, Cowra’s Festival of International Understanding, and Cementa 2015, the festival of contemporary art in Kandos. My apologies to readers for the delays in writing up these events.]
Page created 15 April 2015, and last updated 3 May 2015.