Friday, 2 December 2011

A Town With no Cheer.

The town is Serviceton, some 440 miles northwest of Melbourne, near the border between Victoria and South Australia. It used to BE the border until a surveying error was discovered, putting it wholly within Victoria. It was at Serviceton that two different states' respective railway systems met, and at one time, passengers would exit one train, and embark upon another. In the in-between time, they would refresh themselves in the station's grand refreshment rooms, the largest such on any australian railway outside a major town, Serviceton itself is a tiny place, a hub of rural activities, but it has few inhabitants. The border was truly a border, a place where two colonies met, where laws were different, taxes too. Customs officers levied duty on freight, smuggling was rife. On an Australian tour, Tom Waits picked up a newspaper with a story about Vic-Rail's decision to pass trains through Serviceton without stopping, and the effect a closure of the station bar and restaurant would have on an already struggling small town. The refreshment room closed in 1981, the station closed in 1986. "The arrival of the station spurred the development of the town. Over the next two years a post office, several general stores, a boarding house and hotel were established and a butcher, hairdresser, plumber, chemist and bricklayer set up premises. The National Bank rented a room at the hotel and a creamery opened in 1891. A fence was erected along the entire length of the border in 1888-89 to keep rabbits and dingoes out of South Australia. The station was closed in 1986 and is now in a state of some disrepair and today there are about a half dozen remaining residents." 'Patterson's Curse' is the name for a blue-flowering plant, Echium plantagineum, introduced to Australia as a garden plant. The common name for it in Australia is said to derive from Jane Paterson, who in the 1880s planted this in her garden, only for it to spread uncontrollably over all the pastures. The plant produces a toxic alkaloid, sheep and cattle can tolerate it, and in drought years, it may be a valuable source of feed for them, but it kills horses and other non-ruminant livestock, by severely damaging the liver. Cutting it only makes it more vigorous. Australia considers it the worst threat to agriculture outside of drought. After bushfires, it is often the first plant to reappear, to the detriment of all others.

"Town With No Cheer" Tom Waits

Well it's hotter 'n blazes, and all the long faces-
there'll be no oasis for a dry local grazier,
there'll be no refreshment for a thirsty jackaroo,
from Melbourne to Adelaide on the overlander
with newfangled buffet cars and faster locomotives
the train stopped in Serviceton less and less often.

There's nothing sadder than a town with no cheer
Vic Rail decided the canteen was no longer necessary there
no spirits, no bilgewater and 80 dry locals
and the high noon sun beats a hundred and four
there's a hummingbird trapped in a closed down shoe store
This tiny Victorian rhubarb
kept the watering hole open for sixty five years.

Now it's boilin' in a miserable March twenty-first
wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson's curse
the train smokes down the xylophone
there'll be no stopping here
all ya can be is thirsty in a town with no cheer.

No Bourbon, no Branchwater,
though the townspeople here
fought the Vic Rail decree tooth and nail.

Now it's boilin' in a miserable March twenty-first
wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson's curse
the train smokes down the xylophone
there'll be no stopping here
all ya can be is thirsty in a town with no cheer

By Request: (Adullamite wanted to see the trains)


  1. Well, that's really a cheery bit of poetry there. Thank you for that.

    P.S.- I am pretty sure I also am a non-ruminant. I don't even think I have a rumen anymore.

  2. I saw a sad movie once about the rabbit-proof fence. I wonder if it is the same one.

  3. How could the train go straight through without stopping if there was duty? I think you are making this up. Oh, wait, they changed the border. I get it now.

  4. I guess nobody else read all this but me, huh? I will go watch the video now. But it better not be too long because it is Friday night here and on Friday nights I get popcorn.

  5. I really enjoyed this post about the town with no chair. I can see why it withered eventually, though, since most people who visited the station's grand refreshment rooms would probably have rather sat down, and not on the floor.

    You didn't mention, but I'm sure they had a fine church like we have up in Alice Springs. Next to that creamery, most likely.

    I do wish you had refrained from mentioning that they put it wholly within Victoria, though. After all, she WAS the queen and her memory deserves a bit more dignity. I suppose we must make allowances for 19th century border town sheepsters and their gutter talk. Fair dinkum and all..

    I had an older cousin who was employed in the construction of the rabbit-proof fence. By Dingo.

    Thank you again for this fine post, my son.

  6. Never mind the town, where is the picture of the train?

  7. Max: More a song than a pome, I'd say... I love it, but then, Tom Waits is an acquired taste.
    Australia has always interested me. I'd like to go travel around for a year or so. The rabbit proof and dingo proof fence... yes, that'll be the same one. What a concept! Over 2000 miles of continuous fence, with protected gates, the fence material was dug into the ground deep enough to stop rabbits from burrowing under.. completed in 1907.

    From Wiki:
    "Alexander Crawford (Inspector of rabbits), took over the maintenance of the fence from Anketell when the fence was finished in 1907 and remained in charge until he retired in 1922. He was eventually appointed Chief Inspector of Rabbits. The area inside the fence to the west became known as "Crawford's Paddock". The fence was maintained at first by boundary riders riding bicycles, and later by riders astride camels. However, fence inspection was difficult from atop the tall animal. In 1910 a car was bought for fence inspection, but was subject to punctured tyres. It was found the best way to inspect the fence was using buckboard buggies, pulled by two camels.

    The camels were used as pack animals, especially in the north, while in the south, camels were used to pull drays with supplies for the riders. Camels were ideal for this as they could go for a long time without water, and it has been suggested that the fence could not have been built or maintained without the use of camels.
    In addition to Crawford, there were four sub-inspectors, each responsible for about 800 kilometres (500 mi) of fence, and twenty-five boundary riders who regularly patrolled 160 kilometres (99 mi) sections of fence. Due to frontier violence in the north of the state, a 500 kilometres (310 mi) section of the No.1 fence was patrolled by riders in pairs."

  8. Max, The train had to stop in the early days, but as Australia unified and harmonised its laws, cross border travel ceased to be such a big deal. But Serviceton, for many decades after the border customs left, was still a stopping place for refuelling, crew changes, and maintenance.
    As a result, the station's restaraurant and bar did good business, as passengers took the opportunity for a stroll outside.
    That prosperity, and the stopping trains made Serviceton a hub for the surrounding district. Everything the territory needed came in on the train, the goods it produced went out on the train. The restaurant was a social hub, where locals and outsiders met.
    With newer, bigger trains, diesel electric rather than steam, with onboard services, no need to take on coal and water, the through-train was the death-knell for the town.
    Press the key marked 'esc' for popcorn.

  9. Vicar Ezra.
    There was no chair, but they were allowed to sit on barrels.
    Unless the croze was stoved.

    As for Her Very Royal Highness, Victoria, the Queen-Empress, I think you may have missed an earlier post here which touched, briefly, upon her em, mechanical pleasures. Following the death of The Prince-Consort, Prince Albert, (who gave his name to a penile piercing), Victoria was bereft. The large number of offspring she bore bears witness to her enthusiasm for the horizontal mambo, so it's no surprise that on losing the hammer for her anvil, she turned to the engineers of the steam-piston to put the smile back upon her portrait.

  10. I care not for the song. For me, the lyrics play best when read. How splendidly they bring to bear the frustrations of not being able to get a drink in a “dry” town. The writer has cleverly parched our senses. Especially appreciated is “wrapped the hills in a blanket of Patterson’s Curse.” And branchwater! I haven’t thought of that word in years. It too conveys a dryness yet simultaneously wets your whistle.

    Fine choice.


  11. Adullamite: Trains now added. Steam not available, so fairly boring dieselectric trucks. Sad.

  12. Leazewell: A dry town. Ach, it gives me the shivers. So much that I might just go to the pub later. Unless I pop a can of the amazingly authentic tasting and looking draught guinness in a can. mmm. thirsty already...

    Like I said, Mr Waits is not for everyone. His songs as sung by others are probably more accessible.
    However, I heard the alternative version of this, sung by Scarlett Johanssen. I think she's better off sticking to the things she does well, like posing naked in a pool of rose petals.
    Singing? No, dear, go home.

    As for branchwater, that's a particularly american word and obsession. Ask for branchwater anywhere here, and you'll just get a blank look.
    And in Australia too, I'll bet.
    And, I'd hope that an aussie bar served scotch, rather than bourbon.

    Dry town... urgh.

  13. Loved the container train. Four times longer than the ones I see regularly coming from Felixstowe!

  14. I meant to ask, is writing part of your job description? Er uh, are you published? You do it so incredibly well, writing, I think you must write elsewhere other than just this blog. Just curious.

  15. from Wikipedia:

    When a whiskey is ‘cut’ (i.e. watered down) prior to bottling, the water that is used is very important to the final product. The preferred source of water is called ’branch water’. Branch water comes directly from the stream that the distillery is built on; some companies even bottle this water, so that bar customers can further dilute their bourbon with the original bourbon water. This branch water starts its life in the underground limestone shelf that exists under most of Kentucky and part of Tennessee. The limestone shelf acts as a natural filter for water that passes over it. Branch water is particular for its lack of character, with no traces of iron or other minerals that would be harmful to the whiskey making process.

    That's why ole Tom orders a Bourbon and Branch at his favorite bar.


  16. ps. Vicar Ezra you crack me up!


  17. Leazwell, No, I'm not a writer, nor am I published, other than by myself in this here interweb.
    My job description? It varies. But today I had a toilet to unblock.

    I don't have the tenacity to be a sustained writer, I'm too easily distracted.

  18. RDG: You lie!
    I'm sure that's not true.

    Soubripedia: Branch Water:- 'Branch Water' is made by squeezing the branches of trees, with a branch-squeezer, into a barrel. The squeezed-branch juices (with a few leaves) are allowed to settle and mature, in a dark cellar or cave, for a minimum of seven years, before being uncasked and decanted into bottles, ready to be served.
    Cheaper, non-branded counterfeit branch water may be extremely disappointing, having been made by steeping the discarded squeezed branches of the aforementioned process in bathwater. It may have a giveaway soapy aroma.

  19. My mother was from Serviceton, my grandfather, Laurie Fryar, owned the General Store for about 30 years and my grandmother was the Post Mistress, which included having to man the telephone exchange back before it became automated. Many wonderful childhood memories. I only just found out about the song, awesome that it's been immortalised.

    1. Great to hear from you Craig, I liked the song, so I had to find out the story behind it. I spent a while travelling around Serviceton, via Google earth and Bing maps... Bing has the better aerial view, complete with freight train!


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