OUT OF THE SILENCE
The man who composed one of the best known pieces of music in pop culture came from a small town marred by tragedy, writes Nicolas Rothwell
It begins with a pulse, rapid, insistent, a gust of strong wind blows, then comes music, soft notes, picked out on electronic keyboards, light, silvery, almost mournful, repeating, lingering, fading slowly away: machine beat against faint melody, a modernistic wash of sound, a fragile, poignant tune.
Such, in its first and loveliest version, is the theme from the long-running science fiction TV series Doctor Who — a brief snatch of music so well known, so intimately familiar to Westerners who grew up in the mass entertainment decades of the late 20th century, that the merest hint of those notes can summon up visions of the Doctor’s Tardis time-travel machine, clunking through the cosmos, its engine wheeze enough to ensure the imminent appearance of disquieting adversaries — metallic Daleks, reptile-like Silurians, Ice Warriors, Cybermen — a galactic menagerie of menace, redolent of dangers, mysteries and elusive depths.
Few, though, either among the old-time devotees of the Doctor and his unceasing travels, or in the new generation of enthusiasts attracted by the ever more modish recent incarnations of the character, know anything at all of this theme music’s connection to the remote Outback and the mirage-torn shadows of Mount Mulligan, the great sandstone monolith of far north Queensland — a haunting stretch of country where the tune’s Australian composer, Ron Grainer, spent his boyhood years.
Here, then, is a tale of atmospherics and diagonal connections, of memories and losses and explorations in music; a tale of the Australian bush as it once was, of a dark disaster’s unbroken echo in the landscape, and an expatriated, reinvented life. The Mount Mulligan massif stands in silence, in the arid savanna, hard of approach, at the endpoint of a maze of branching, twisting red dirt tracks, although it lies no more than 70km in straight-line distance from the rainforests of the Daintree coast.
It is four times the size of Ayers Rock, and far more dramatic. Around its looming bulk lie ruins, old mine workings, a tall chimney and a
full graveyard graveyard. N Northwards, across brokenb ranges, are the desertedt goldfields of the Palmer and the Hodgkinson, pioneered in the 1870s by the indefatigable James Venture Mulligan, a highgrade raconteur and diarist, well-known in his day for his diverting columns in The Queenslander.
His name was bestowed on the mountain, a favourite hiding place for the local Aboriginal tribes, and known to them, according to various sources, as Narrobullgin or Woothakata. But it was coal, not gold, that brought Westerners to Mulligan. In 1907, rich deposits were found there: a town was promptly built, and a connecting railway line to Dimbulah and Chillagoe. By 1914 there was a population of more than 300, there were hotels and stores, there was a butcher’s shop, a post office, even “refreshment rooms”. The backlands at the base of Cape York were still full of miners, prospectors and trades- men in those days. The histories of the region, such as teacher and north Queensland local Mike Rimmer’s multi-volume Up the Palmerston, teem with wild narratives, rich in laughter, t tears and escapade. A number of migrant family dynasties had ma made this region their home: among them the Gr Grainers, of Austrian origin, almost certainly fro from Klagenfurt in Carinthia. The first generation came out by boat in 1855, and disembarked at Adelaide and settled there.
Frank Grainer, the most mettlesome of seven children, displayed an early talent for arithmetic at his little school in Queenstown. As a young man he went to jail for stealing horses, then fetched up as a wheeler-dealer in the north. By 1878 he was running cattle, and travelling down stock routes. One February morning he was attacked by Chinese coolies who objected to his insistence on his right of way: they beat him with their bamboo sticks, and shot him twice in the chest.
He recovered, moved to the Walsh River, then on to Maytown, at the heart of the Palmer goldfield. He married, acquired a butcher’s shop and a half-interest in the Good Hope mine, and built up a business empire. His brother Charlie was also in the field: when still a stripling he went out on a prospecting expedition led by the flamboyant Robert Logan Jack. Their party penetrated deep into unfamiliar country to the northwest. They found the river crossing that would become the site of Coen township and the nearby Ebagoola mine — the place where, 24 years later, Charlie, by then a well-known, “very patient and persevering prospector” on the end of a long run of bad luck, took his own life.
According to statements given at the local courthouse, he walked out into the scrub beyond the settlement, built a cremation pyre from scattered timber, fired its edges then climbed into its centre and lit up a stick of dynamite bound tight to his forehead.
Vivid life; dark drama. It was the trademark of the pioneering north, and the pattern held for years to come. Frank’s son, Ron Albert Grainer, had helped prove up the coal deposits at Mulligan, and in due course he moved the family store from nearby Thornborough to the new coalmining town, to Harris Street, lot nine, adjacent to the School of Arts building.
There, in 1920, he became engaged to the musically inclined Margaret Clark, a woman of “sweet and sunny nature”. It was the build-up season: the marriage was close at hand.
Mining historian Colin Hooper, in volume three of his North Queensland Deserted Towns, sets the scene in detail: “Sunday 18th September was hot and the cricket game was called off. In the cool of the evening, however, an impromptu