As soon as he gets there, he wants to be elsewhere/As soon as he leaves, it’s pulling him back
You can live where you want but you can’t choose your hometown/Your parents do that…
Kate Miller-Heidke was singing about her husband and musical collaborator Keir Nuttall in the chorus of her unreleased song Toowoomba. However, she could have as easily been describing anyone’s mixed feelings about their hometown. More to the point, I’ve always felt quite strongly that she was, as if had seen inside my brain, revealing my own complicated outlook on the Garden City.
Is everyone cursed with an obsession with their hometown? The idea of Toowoomba is never far from my mind. I’ve made documentaries on the place and I could make dozens more about its strange characters and interesting tales. I want to show it to the world – look, this is the place that made me who I am! It exists and it’s a little strange and there’s a church on every corner, but it matters! And so do its people!
I just can’t figure it out.
A visit home always feels inevitable. It is truly refreshing to return; to be impressed by its progress and reinvigorated by its heritage. Yes, within a few days I’m eager to leave, but I do find it comforting to forever have somewhere to return. Perhaps the idea of Toowoomba I’m so enamoured with is really the abstract notion of home. Or maybe I just like the cold weather and pretty flowers.
After seven years in Brisbane I have found that new acquaintances and work colleagues are always interested to hear about growing up ‘beyond the range’. Their idea of a rural upbringing doesn’t always match what I experienced. Some severely misjudge Toowoomba’s distance from the bright lights of Queen Street. Others assume I grew up plainly without technology, perhaps on a farm, possibly an Amish-esque existence. Their knowledge of Toowoomba, the place, is also limited. “There’s a flower festival, right?” “Did you have anything fun to do on weekends?” One new friend, joking I think, admitted he knew little outside of Brisbane: “The furthest west I’ve ever been is Indooroopilly!”
Sometimes it seems that these people, well-meaning as they are, are impressed I made it as far as I have. As if it is an achievement to make it from the far-flung Darling Downs all the way to the sprawling metropolis of Brisbane. And although those of us born outside the capital cities undoubtedly have it tougher in many ways… it’s also only 130 kilometres from Toowoomba to Brisbane. A lot of people make it off the farm.
In truth, growing up I never really considered that I lived in a rural community at all. My childhood home was in suburbia with ready access to the internet and I doubt my youth was that dissimilar to the majority of young people across the country. Toowoomba is not a huge town by any stretch, but with a population of about 120 000, it is the second largest inland city in Australia, not a one pub town. We had two cinemas with all the same movies as the big smoke and plenty of shops, as well as some events (including, yes, a flower festival). It’s all more than I can say for some country Queensland towns I’ve visited. Any further west and things are looking markedly more rustic.
However, digging deeper into my memories reveals some reflections that might raise a city slicker’s eyebrows. I remember street corners consisting of paddocks and horses. I recall seeing genuine farmers in town complete with jeans, boots and huge cowboy hats. I certainly had friends who lived on homesteads (one on the side of a mountain), while a brisk twenty-minute walk from my home on the edge of town would take you from built-up developments to more isolated farmhouses. A ten-minute drive and you’re in the bush.
So, on the cusp of both the outback and the eastern seaboard, quite literally on the Great Dividing Range, what is Toowoomba? What would I tell the world? Is it an urban new age city with some rurality on the edges? Or is it, eternally, a big country town?
Both, I think, and neither, all at once. It can be a rural awakening if you’re from the city, but it’s positively cosmopolitan compared to most places in the bush. The pace is slower, the traffic non-existent and you can see the stars at night. However, with the construction of a much-lauded airport and the arrival of international shopping brands within the last few years, it seems like evolution is moving toward urbanity. High speed rail to Brisbane would be a game changer although I wouldn’t hold your breath.
Still, perhaps it won’t be so long before there’s a complete breakdown of rural/urban conceptions, in Toowoomba and far yonder. However, as my experience indicates, any simple ‘rural’ classification of the town is trumped by personal experience.
Not that reality has much to do with perception. I predict my Toowoomba youth will continue to be a curiosity for city-folk. No matter the future, Toowoomba’s reputation as a quaint village filled with pretty gardens and religious nutters will continue to pervade. The febrile recycled water debate did us no favours fifteen years ago. The ‘No’ vote in the 2017 marriage equality plebiscite didn’t help either, nor did the fact that many of the prominent dissenting campaigners were Toowoomba exports. I’m proud to be from Toowoomba and I couldn’t be more ashamed to share my hometown with Lyle Shelton.
Hometown pride is a funny thing, now I think about it. I do wonder sometimes what exactly I am proud of. Don’t get me wrong, Toowoomba, while not without its problems, is a nice, friendly place and you could live a long and happy life there. So many people do. But I just happened to be born and raised there – do I have any right to claim pride in its achievements? In its existence? Decent people are doing good things in Toowoomba, especially for refugees and multiculturalism. Do I get a share in that noble spirit because I spent my youth shivering on the range?
In more introspective moments I question if my pride in being from Toowoomba exactly that. That I am from there and no longer there. That I escaped. That I can have the best of both worlds. I can brandish a USP compared to my friends who were born and raised in Brisbane; I hold a certain pastoral allure, even if I know it’s not quite true.
Further, in short, sweet visits I can fully appreciate the town’s nice features – the community spirit, the burgeoning food scene, the pretty sights, while conversely, as I’m no longer a resident I can otherwise overlook the negatives that outsiders often pity – the cripplingly conservative politics, the pervasive religiosity, the lack of much else to do apart from eat and look at the gardens.
Personally, I’ve never felt you needed much more than a nice restaurant, a cosy cinema and a warm bed in order to live a good life – but maybe that’s a consequence of my upbringing in the sleepy uneventful town.
Maybe I’m brainwashed. Toowoomba gets in your soul. Good, bad, city, rural – it’s all part of my make-up. The city will keep changing, perhaps at a slower pace than some places. I guess so will I.
The world faces extreme challenges in 2020 and beyond, and I must admit lately I’ve felt a certain pull. I never thought I’d move back, but with COVID-19 drying up job opportunities, I might have no other choice. We’re all faced with an uncertain future right now.
To me, at least, it’s comforting to know that no matter what else happens in life your hometown remains the same.