Dear Albury

Albury city, that regional border-hub on Wiradjuri land and site of the first migrant centre in Australia in 1947, has featured more prominently than usual in the metropolitan news of late.  When greater Melbourne went into hard lockdown due to Covid-19 and the border between Victoria and NSW was closed, Albury became the unlikely scene of backed-up traffic chaos, permit wrangling, road-closure protests and people getting fed-up and angry.

I myself have a story about getting fed-up and angry in Albury.  There was none of the chaos and anxiety around my journey, as doubtless there would be if I did it now.  Not that I could, anyhow.  Lockdown restrictions are still in place.  Melburnians aren’t allowed beyond 5 kms of their home, let alone Albury or anywhere else interstate.

A couple of years ago, in the middle of winter, I went to Albury by train to do some historical research.  There were two reasons I went by train.  The first was that I had no car and I couldn’t be bothered hiring one.  The second was that a friend of mine had said that at Albury station I’ll see for myself one of the longest train platforms in Australia, as well as the Italianate grandeur of the station building, which was built in 1881. 

I really don’t care for long platforms — they just mean more walking, right? — and ‘grandeur’ was a little rich, I thought, for an Australian railway station.  And I was worried how much of this walk I might have to do.  So checking my ticket to see which seat and carriage I’d booked I hoped I was toward the front of the train, if not in the first carriage.  Sure enough, I’d booked a seat in the last carriage, remembering how I had to take what I could get because I’d left my travel arrangements to the last minute, unlike a lot of other smarter people who’d already got all the good seats further up toward the front of the train.  Not only was I going to see the whole ‘magnificent’ length of the platform, but I was going to have to walk it, too.

When my train arrived at Albury and I walked out of the carriage I happened to look across the rail yard at a disused platform.  There was an old green tin shed with no roof and no door, and perhaps because of the angle at which I was viewing it in the disappearing light of a late afternoon in winter, the doorless doorway of the shed appeared to me as nothing but a black rectangle, a forbidding entrance into a dark, cobwebbed, creepy-crawly interior.

Much worse, though, and as noticeable as any signage displayed at the station, was the graffiti, or vandalism, spray painted below the shed on the side of this disused platform.  I’m in two minds.  I don’t want to write what I saw – I don’t want to repeat it.  And yet, to deliver the full impact of what I saw, I feel I need to document it.  Needless to say, I won’t type out the words, but let me just say that alongside a Nazi swastika and the words ‘White Power,’ there was racist hate speech directed at Indigenous Australians.  Quite awful stuff.  The platform was about four feet high, and the spray-painted hate speech and the swastika must have covered at least three feet of that (the swastika alone was about a foot square).  In other words, it was all very noticeable.

I’m well aware that racism exists and I know people are stupid or moronic or dangerous enough to do this kind of thing at a railway station.  But surely I wasn’t the only person who’d seen it and wanted it removed immediately. 

More to the point, this hate speech wasn’t so much spray-painted as it was ingrained on the side of that platform.  It had some wear and tear.  It was a little weather-beaten, as though it’d seen a few summers and winters.  It wasn’t new.  It hadn’t suddenly appeared overnight, as if someone had furtively got into the rail yard and sprayed it when all of Albury was tucked up toasty in bed.  No.  It was of a piece with the old tin shed.

Needless to say, I took several photos of it, wrenched my bag over my shoulder and walked angrily down one of the longest train platforms in the country, which was now, absurdly, the most racist train platform in the country. 

I headed for the distant station building.  I wanted to go right up to the counter and give the staff a berating.  Instead I found myself waiting in a line of several people.  The weak sun was going down and the cold was cutting.  The platform lights came on.  I hadn’t realised how long I’d spent photographing the vandalism and walking the length of the platform to the station office.  I’d only eaten a sandwich all day and I became hungry very quickly.  I still had to get to my hotel.  I couldn’t wait any longer. 

In my hotel I called the station.  The woman who answered said she had no idea who would be responsible for getting such a thing removed and suggested I contact the council.  But it was a Saturday and after hours.  Council offices were closed.  Nonetheless, I found their contact page and sent an email.  I was returning to Melbourne first thing Tuesday morning and I knew that I probably wouldn’t get a response until I was back home.  I would have to wait.  I had done my bit and left it at that.  Come Monday morning someone would read the email and something would get done about it. 

Over the next couple of days all I could think about was that damned train station.  It became an obsession because I wanted to find a way to redeem the place if only for myself.  I didn’t want to leave with that being the only thing about the city or my research time in Albury.  Perhaps the worst place to look was in the archives and to go through the colonial history of Albury.  Instead, I sought out artworks of the town and discovered The Station Yard, a 1943 painting by Russell Drysdale. 

Though it is not an ebullient painting, The Station Yard is certainly an astonishing work of art, and it’s historical authenticity is eerily indisputable.  We see an external view of Albury station at night.  There are two soldiers.  On the left one soldier has emerged out of one of the station’s dark doorways into the light.  He’s walking across the yard toward the other soldier, who waits at the back of a truck.  Wearing an oversized slicker, the first soldier looks ghostly.  He’s distorted and slightly elongated, a recurrent surrealist trope of Drysdale’s, as is evident in his iconic 1948 painting The Cricketeers, as well as in Moody’s Pub (1941), Man Feeding His Dogs (1941) and Sunday Evening (1941).  The second soldier, waiting by the back of the truck, embodies Drysdale’s other recurrent and iconic theme of lonely but calm, patient and dignified figures in remote landscapes. 

Image courtesy of https://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/

Yet Drysdale integrates both figures — both soldiers — into the surrounds of the station yard in such a way as to emphasise a certain drama of the ‘brown-out,’ a wartime measure of lights being dimmed or covered to help protect areas from Japanese air raids during the Second World War.  Although these air raids did not extend as far south as Albury, the war was still an ever-present reality there.  Albury station was used routinely for military movements and there were also several army camps in the town. 

When Drysdale moved to Albury in 1942 he would often see soldiers marching along the road or camped out on the platform at the train station, resting on their kitbags, waiting for the train.  (At this time the railway lines of Victoria and New South Wales changed gauge at Albury station, resulting in long delays.)  As his paintings from this era show, Drysdale became creatively preoccupied with the presence of war in Albury — see, for example, his Albury Platform (1943), Soldiers (1943) and Airport at Night (1944).

But of all his paintings The Station Yard perhaps best articulates the presence of war in Albury as something ghostly, not quite tangibly there but present all the same. 

I couldn’t stop looking at it.  I fell into it, tumbling.  Its grittiness and drama of night and darkness intrigued me.  It beckoned me in as I tried to keep my distance from the building’s dark portals – Was it fear or some atavistic terror lurking in those dark, gaping spaces?  Step inside them and vanish forever into the horrors of war.  Mesmerising too was the sour yellow of the lights illuminating the yard. 

By inscribing a subtext of a sense of awe and dread and emotional intensity, The Station Yard transforms Albury station from a place of waiting and boredom into something full of suspense.  The black with sombre blues and reds in the sky, the dirty pink of the campanile, the gritty façade of the building and of course, those dark doorways and arches, all create an emotionally charged wartime atmosphere capturing a sinister intensity between arrival and departure.  Actually the painting seems to imply that it’s not the soldiers doing the waiting but the war; that the war is waiting for them to be delivered into the death and destruction that lies far beyond the dark remoteness of Albury.

Having gone to Albury to do some historical research I ended up contemplating Drysdale’s eerie evocation of a war-time railway station. Then it was time to leave. 

The vandalism was still on the platform.  My train pulled up.  Passengers disembarked and station attendants cleaned out the carriages for the journey to Melbourne.  An overweight (and out-of-breath) attendant stepped from the train onto the platform.  I went up to him and mentioned the hate speech.

‘It’s right there,’ I said, pointing to the platform across the rail yard.

He sighed, apathetically. 

I said I’ve written to the council.

‘I guess it’ll get sorted then,’ he said.

‘Yes.  It needs to be removed.’

‘Well I can’t get down there and do it myself,’ he said with a dismissive laugh.  ‘Too much health and safety.’

‘Health and safety?’

‘The contractors.  Council will probably pass it on to the rail corporation.’

‘Ok.’

‘But the rail corp might have to pass it on again.’

‘Really.  Why?’

‘The rail corp may not be able to get a contractor.’

He seemed to know a lot about this kind of thing.  I said I should have spoken to him when I first called about it.

‘I don’t work the phones mate.’

Of course not.  I asked why a contractor.  ‘Because the work’s in the rail corridor.  It’s where the trains move in and out.  It’s over the tracks and there’s a whole bunch of health and safety rules to comply with.’

Health and safety again.  I said I won’t expect a quick result.  ‘Best not to.  They’ll probably have to arrange a protection officer as well.’

‘Huh?  A what?’

‘A protection officer.  He’ll have to be down there with them when it gets done.  It’s all health and safety mate, you know how it is these days.’  Health and safety.  Health and safety.

‘But what about the emotional and psychological health and safety of the people offended by that bloody racism,’ I said. ‘It’s ridiculous how noticeable it is.’

He stared right through me.  As he walked away he said, ‘Don’t get bloody aggro at me mate.  I didn’t put it there.  It’ll sort itself out.’ 

He was right.  He didn’t put it there.  But he walked past it every day and did nothing about it.

A week or so after getting back to Melbourne I received several replies from different departments all in some way connected to the bureaucratic and corporate bodies governing interstate and country railways.  I was assigned a case number and thanked for providing ‘feedback.’  One or two of the replies apologised for any distress the vandalism may have caused, while taking the opportunity to spruik an ongoing commitment to customer satisfaction.  But none mentioned any action to remove the hate speech.  When that finally came through, this is what was said:

Your complaint about the graffiti in Albury railway has been acknowledged and now we are happy to confirm that we can source a contractor to undertake the works for us.  As they will be working in the rail corridor we must comply with health and safety rules and we need to arrange a protection officer to help us with that.  Our supportive team will let you know the final outcome.

But they never did.