Tale of Two Cities



'Tale of Two CitiesIpswich and Tamworth' Arena Magazine (1997)

The city of Sophronia is made up of two half cities. In one there is the great roller-coaster with its steep humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching motor-cyclists, the big two with the clumps of trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank, the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the school, and all the rest.

Italo Calvino Invisible Cities

Two Australian cities. IPSWICH and TAMWORTH. One anxious to gain attention, the other desperately seeking obscurity. The Queensland coal city is the first on the block to embrace global computer networks, while the New South Wales rural trade centre is absorbed more by its past history than future horizons. The strange thing about such these two Australian cities is not what makes them different, but their shared passion.

The `real’ IPSWICH is Queensland’s industrial centre, the source of coal and railways. With the closure of both the mines and the railway workshop, however, IPSWICH is left only with an image of itself. Embracing the official title `Heritage City’, IPSWICH has finessed its labour history in an attempt to renew its fortunes with the tourist trade.

This marketing strategy has recently been assisted by a council Internet provider, Global Info-Links which drew the attention of Four Corners, which featured IPSWICH as a case study of an online city. As well as community information, this IPSWICH web service focuses on the elderly population, local business and tourist enquiries. The council CEO’s online statement identifies the City's vision as `to enhance the lifestyle of the community of the diverse modern City of IPSWICH and the central business district's leadership role as the key strategic regional centre of the western growth corridor of South East Queensland.’ Global Info-Links is presented as `one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox’ for realising that vision.

IPSWICH is a curious combination of brave new and scared old world. In the centre of the city is a Global Info-Links café, looking like a set for Flash Gordon. Inside, at the registration desk, there are indeed queues of residents waiting to enrol with their local Internet service. But it is not so easy to find out where this service actually exists. I was shunted around corridors until I came to what seemed like a nursery for computers: a series of beige boxes gurgling, scratching and beeping. It appeared deserted at first, until I noticed a blue jeaned bum in the air. I noticed several more. Eventually, their owners came up for air clutching computer cables. This manic scene of `dry’ plumbing belied the seamless and hands-free appearance of web sites.

IPSWICH has for long played a Chicago to Brisbane’s New York. Though not the centre of administrative power, it was the site of great labour. Coal fields supplied the state with energy and railroad stock was first shipped up the Bremer river from England to supply the huge workshop. As the transport centre, IPSWICH was the point of origin of the state’s first railroad in 1865. Global Info-Links seems a continuation of the city’s identity as a hub of Queensland, though the network is now `bits’ rather than `atoms’ (in MIT speak). The fibre-optic cables that link IPSWICH to the rest of the world are in fact piped along the railway lines to Brisbane. In comparison to the epic struggle of the railways, the labour involved in laying the tracks of this information network seems largely invisible.

Local history repeats itself. First as labour and then as recreation. The Royal IPSWICH Show is a palimpsest of manual labour. One of the highlighted events is the Silver Spike Contest, where participants practice the age old craft of hammering down sleepers. It seems impossible to imagine that a future show will contain a `Glass Cable Contest’, where equivalent skills are demonstrated in laying down bandwidth. A sign of the times was evident in the classic woodchop contest, when the commentator sought audience patience at the poor performances, explaining that the soft boxwoods normally used for these events is now unavailable.

I experienced the emptiness in IPSWICH most personally in a local pub. I’d sought a typical pub on a Friday night to glean impressions about the state of the land and taste the lamb. As I waited for my order, the local sponger extracted the toll due strangers from down south: a few beers and an earful of crazed conspiracies.

The prospect of chops and three veg seemed welcome relief. To my embarrassment, the meal was presented to me by a young woman dressed only in white suspenders, stockings and a g-string. After depositing my meal, she joined a cluster of old men at the bar who treated her as though she was young neighbour, filled with amiable banter. Like a surreal episode from a Brunuel film, it seemed perfectly ordinary to have this near naked woman among these blokes. As I left the pub I caught a glimpse of the complementary scene in the ladies lounge. A couple of lads in g-strings were sitting at the bar chatting with a few old ladies, who could well have been the wives of the men next door.

No doubt many local pubs have this kind of lingerie service. Rather than anything lascivious, the scene testifies to a sad longing for the uncivilised easefulness of unclothed flesh. In the past, it might have been the Salvos who gave to the bar a similar kind of sober vitality.

It wouldn’t happen in TAMWORTH. Speaking with locals, it seems the glamour of the country music festival is something they spend the rest of the year trying to forget. Rather than trying to catch up with the rest of the world, there is real desire to claim their lost past. You won’t find TAMWORTH on any Internet search. This is not to say that the town is immune to the imperative of the information revolution to catalogue all the myriad details of life, rather that the focus of their data-gathering is insular.

A local historian, Tom McClelland, has recently published the third of his cemetery histories of the area. His recent project to construct a database of the TAMWORTH cemetery commands much respect in the community, to the extent that local politicians are vying for his favour. Before I arrived, the state member for TAMWORTH, a universally loved National Party politician who proudly own the safest seat in the state, had just re-opened the Bowling Green cemetery, a community restoration lead by Mr McClelland.

This singular obsession¾ matched by his video collection of every John Wayne movie¾ marked him as a lovable eccentric. Every taxi driver knew him, and one remarked: `He’s a good bloke Tom, do you a good turn before he does you a bad one’. However, my own attempts to interview him failed. He couldn’t think of a reason why anyone outside TAMWORTH would be interested in this business. In the end, I had to make do with the local tourist eccentric, the `dunny man’ Fred Hillier, who has started quite a lucrative business making ceramic urns for backyard burials.

The TAMWORTH cemetery database shares with the IPSWICH Global Info-Links a drive to translate the material world into information. Together, they exemplify the Nietzschean dialectic of power. While in TAMWORTH, the drive is to preserve local history, in IPSWICH the energy is focused on extending the resource base of the city. Put side by side, the two cities show that the advent of any information revolution may not be homogeneous. Every superhighway has its superbiway.