February 2009

The Nation Reviewed

Backyard blitz

By John van Tiggelen
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

When Tony Gibbins comes knocking, you know you’ve messed up. Gibbins is the Unsightly Properties Officer with the Loddon Shire Council. It says so on his name badge. Most shires prefer a prettier job title, such as Beautification Officer or Environmental Health Officer, but in the Shire of Loddon, centred on the forgotten goldfields hub of Wedderburn, in north-west Victoria, they appreciate plain talk.

Before the drought, Gibbins farmed wheat and sheep full-time. He is a big fellow, with a face flecked crimson by the bitterness that blows in from the Mallee. He shares his job with Tony Bellenger, who is short and tough and captain-coach of a local football team. They’re known as Big Tone and Little Tone.

Last winter, the two Tones took me for a drive. The shire, located a good hour’s drive beyond where Melburnians are game to move in pursuit of lifestyle – let’s call it the tree-change line – is one of the poorest in the state. Its wide brown yonder is studded with silo towns in various stages of extinction. The whistlestops bear suitably dun names, like Dingee, Durham Ox and Borung. In Korong Vale, which hummed with passenger trains branching to Mildura and Swan Hill until their Jeffing by the Kennett government, 15 years ago, every second house stands empty. Three hours from Melbourne’s puff-priced property market, homes are as cheap as cars.

In essence, the Tones manage decay. At the shire offices, framed certificates from the Keep Australia Beautiful Council attest to their efficiency. (Curiously, it is primarily towns too distant or too drab to appeal to sea- and tree-changers that continue to take the Tidy Town awards seriously.) Decay is inherently untidy. Crusts of habitation litter this back country: lone chimneys, leaning sheds and lumpy middens of corroded white goods, corrugated iron, wire, tanks and farm machinery. And cars. Especially cars. Every year about half a million cars are removed from Australia’s roads. The vast majority, about four in five, are crushed, shredded and recycled, but the ratio swings the other way on the dry side of the Divide. Somewhere en route to Wedderburn, beyond but not quite distinct from the tree-change line, it seemed I’d crossed another lifestyle contour: the scrap line. On one side there were no car carcasses. On the other they teemed like Tasmanian roadkill.

The two Tones and I passed a stranding of Kingswood utes under a peppercorn tree, just outside Borung. Big Tone explained these were a resource, not junk: wheels, doors and bonnets had been removed as required. And they were too far from the road to be deemed unsightly. Likewise, we turned a blind eye to 20 wrecks clogging an eroded creekbed. “If they’re pretty much out of sight, we pretty much leave them be,” Gibbins said. “There’s so much to clean up, we have to prioritise.”

In Borung proper, and in several other towns, we pulled up in front of a number of clapped-out homes. From a folder Bellenger would hand me photographs depicting yards cluttered with old bombs and assorted rubble. Then he’d point to the same yard, blitzed barren. It wasn’t so much more sightly as less visible. After all, there’s nothing so tidy as nothing at all.

“We focus on the approaches to towns, main streets, things like that,” Gibbins said. “We like a town to have a good side. It might not change the economics, but it has impact on local people’s mental health.” In Korong Vale, where two sheep were moseying down the main street, the Tones showed me half a dozen dry-baked yards where they’d catalysed clean-ups. “You can feel the difference here,” said Gibbins. “Neighbours are pleased. It’s satisfying. You feel like you’ve achieved something.”

I got out to talk to a man renovating the town’s two-storey hotel. He’d picked it up for $120,000, having recently returned to Korong Vale after three years of fast living in Barcelona. “Every second joint in this town had at least three or four cars in its yard when I left. It’s like people were mulching with metal,” he said. “Then I came back and it’s almost all gone. I couldn’t believe the difference.”

Initially, around four years ago, the shire’s efforts to keep things tidy met with resistance. The Tones found people were attached to their debris for a tangle of reasons supplementary to slovenliness, such as sentimentality, shelter (for pets), defiance, family tradition – hard-up types have been hoarding scrap here since the days of the diggings – and even aesthetics. One property owner agreed to have his Holden bodies carted off on the condition his neighbour’s Fords went as well. Others would co-operate, only to amass fresh piles within months.

“We always try and negotiate,” Bellenger said. “If the property owner won’t move their junk, we might get them to erect a fence around it, so you at least can’t see it from the road. Although we’re no longer so keen on that, because half the time they’ll use the scrap to build the fence.” Added Gibbins: “The thing to keep in mind is that these people are battlers. They drive a car into the ground, buy the same model again and figure, That old car will come in handy one day. And in a way, they’re smart. Well, not smart, but right. Those wrecks are worth dollars now.”

Around the time of my visit, the clean-up negotiations had just become a whole lot easier. Commodity prices had rocketed, and demand for recycled metal rivalled that of the raw product. The big scrap yards of Melbourne couldn’t shove cars into their shredders fast enough to feed the foundries. Suddenly Gibbins was getting calls from scrap dealers up to 150 kilometres away, offering $100 a tonne to cart away rusty wrecks. It seemed the scrap line had lifted. “Four years ago no scrappy was interested; it cost us money to transport the scrap to the tip. Now they’re paying us to send it to China,” Gibbins said.

Well, they were. Commodity prices have since collapsed, and the scrap line has constricted south again. Meanwhile, Wedderburn’s local scrappy, who is also called Tony, and who did most of the shire’s cleaning up, is content for his stocks to start accruing again in the likes of Dingee and Borung. “Business is still good, mate,” he told me through his truck window recently, while carting three car wrecks. “When farms are going down, it’s great for scrap.”

His sprawling yard abuts the Calder Highway to Mildura. It’s very visible, thanks in part to the positioning of his favourite rust pieces – a windmill, a dray, several ancient tractors, an old Bedford truck, a rickety eucalyptus still – right by the road. “Folks love that heritage stuff, “ he said. “So if I find something I like, I’ll try to put it where they can see it.” The two Tones aren’t so sure, just quietly; they’d rather he plant a row of trees, or erect a fence, to screen the lot. “The problem with this gig,” Gibbins reflected, “is that nothing’s definite. Something you think is unsightly, someone else might not mind at all.”

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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