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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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