Current Issue #477

Good Country: Auburn's cradle of poetry

Good Country: Auburn's cradle of poetry

The birthplace of influential Australian writer CJ Dennis, 21st century Auburn retains a certain poetry all of its own.

One of Australia’s most successful poets, CJ Dennis, was born in 1876 in a pub in the Mid North town of Auburn. Dennis’s verse novel The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke (1915) was so popular that a special pocket edition was produced for Australian soldiers fighting in the trenches in WWI. Dennis’s contempt for snobbery and his ability to ennoble the slang voice of everyday Australians helped shape Australians’ self-identity. In some way, Dennis’s cultural influence is still felt whenever we sit in the front seat of an Uber (as passengers) or display in other ways that Aussie egalitarianism.

Auburn is the ideal birthplace for a poet. It’s the portal to the Clare Valley wine region and has a vibrant artistic energy and distinctive, well-preserved historical buildings. Today, trucks often drive through the main street, but this only breaks the serenity temporarily before silence resettles and galahs fly overhead. The name of Auburn probably even comes from a poem, Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village (1770), containing the line ‘Sweet Auburn, loveliest village in the plain’. This poem is a protest against wealthy landowners displacing the poor in the interests of greed – a protest that the highly political Dennis would have appreciated.

C.J. Dennis, 1910 (Photo: State Library of South Australia)

Dennis left Auburn at the age of one (his family moved to nearby Watervale, and Dennis sometimes stayed with relatives in Mintaro), but Auburn honours Dennis in various ways. Although water did not rank highly (but was highly rank) on Dennis’s list of favourite beverages, a water drinking fountain is one such memorial to Dennis. There is also a replica of the Auburn Hotel, where he was born. And Auburn hosts the CJ Dennis Festival every September.

Nevertheless, there is some feeling in the community that interest in Dennis is waning. Cherie Harvey, chairperson of Ruby Award-winning rural arts organisation HATs (Heritage Arts and Traditions), says, “You can only take so much of CJ Dennis. He wrote in a vernacular that lots of people don’t understand. So, you need to put a new slant on it.” This makes sense, just as theatre companies have a long tradition of repurposing Shakespeare to make him relevant and engaging to contemporary audiences, Dennis, a musician, may have enjoyed the folk acts who perform at HATs’ Auburn venue, such as the legendary Eric Bogle. Bogle and Dennis may have even collaborated on songs … with John Schumann.

Apart from its lively arts scene, Auburn is worth visiting to experience its impressive and distinctive buildings. Many of these bear the mark of Joseph Meller, a brilliant stonemason. Meller used local Auburn bluestone to create much of the town’s original architecture, including the corn mart, and the former courthouse and police station where HATs is based. Meller’s thoughtful touches can still be seen, such as a ladies’ mounting stone (for getting on and off horses) and a boot cleaner, built into the front facade of the Institute building.

Welcome to Auburn

Another fine example of Meller’s handiwork is the former general store that now houses Terroir Auburn’s restaurant, café and accommodation. With Auburn authenticity, the 1860 building uses Auburn bluestone and Mintaro slate. Also, chef/owner Dan Moss and co-owner Annika Moss mostly use local farmers’ produce in Terroir Auburn’s moreish and unique food creations. Says Dan, “We work closely with our local producers to empower them, reduce food mileage and promote future development.”

I was curious to know what Dan would serve Dennis if the latter wandered into Terroir Auburn.

“I’d make for him a rabbit pie floater because the pie floater was invented in 1891 in Port Pirie, so it’s something that Dennis may have tasted as a 15-year-old. I’d exchange the traditional beef for rabbit, and I’d also serve it with a spiced carrot sauce because Dennis was a humorous man, and he would have liked that the carrot was having the last laugh over the rabbit!”

My first thought was that Dennis would indeed have liked the symbolism of the carrot rising up against the rabbit; my next thought was that I want more than anything to eat that imaginary rabbit pie floater.

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