Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Belshaw's World - riot at the Star hotel

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 27 July 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011. I referred to this column in yesterday's post, Selling New England to itself.

On the night of 18 September 1979 a riot broke out in Newcastle outside the Star Hotel.

Originally built in 1885, the Star was a huge, rambling place stretching a block between King and Hunter streets with three very different bars and clienteles.

Star Hotel riot The Hotel had been the target of criticism and the licensing police for some time, and just one week before owners Tooth & Co had announced that the hotel was to close. It was an unpopular decision, and a large crowd had gathered on the Hotel’s final night.

Newcastle accountant and President of the reforming Northern (New England) New State Movement Greg Howley was there that night and recalls events.

“The hotel was due to be closed permanently”, Greg wrote, “and Heroes were the last act to appear before its demise. The Star was a popular live venue and it was standing room only as the pub was packed with emotion charged youth such as myself eager to send it out on high.”

“Unfortunately, the police were also there and on the nose of closing time shut the power and tried to empty the pub. It was a spark to a powder keg and the patrons reacted angrily - spilling over onto King Street, confronting the police, hurling missiles, upturning and setting fire to cars in what become an infamous confrontation played out on national news bulletins.”

Songwriter Don Walker immortalised the event in the Cold Chisel song “Star Hotel.” The lyrics begin:

“All last night we were learning
Drank our cheques by the bar
Somewhere bridges were burning
As the walls came down at the Star
Squadcars fanned the insanity
Newsteams fought through the crowd
Spent last night in custody
And the sun found me on the road”

This is a political song with a special focus on unemployment. There was high youth unemployment at the time, and it was a major issue.

I was then working in the Commonwealth Treasury. The Department’s view, one that I shared, was that we could not get unemployment down without fixing the economic fundamentals. That may have been right, but it was small consolation to those out of a job.

Donald Hugh Walker was born in Ayr North Queensland to a farmer father and schoolteacher mother. The family later moved to Grafton where Walker went to school before studying physics at UNE.

The Walker family was quite literary, Mother Shirley was a novelist, while sister Brenda also studied at UNE before going on to become a writer and leading Australian academic.

In addition to his songs, Don also published a book, Shots, containing recollections of his life in rural Australia and with Cold Chisel before the band became famous. Both songs and book show New England influences.

In addition to “Star Hotel”, Don Walker wrote the lyrics to one of Cold Chisel’s most famous songs, “Flame Trees”, about Grafton. Mark Bellamy, a fellow blogger from the Clarence Valley, described the song in this way:

“It's the classic aussie country town song of love, loss, friendship and anti-nostalgia. I can't get this tune out of my head at this time of the year”.

I am not a muso, but I can understand why Newcastle has taken Cold Chisel to its heart. It makes perfect sense to me that the band should plan to begin their newt tour in Newcastle.

Newcastle has a great musical tradition, something that I have really only become aware of quite recently.

It’s not just Silverchair, Newcastle’s best known band, but band after band.

Further, while Newcastle’s musical tradition has that somewhat gritty element common to other aspects of the city’s cultural life, the tradition extends beyond this into every element of music.

I know that Armidale prides itself on being the cultural capital of the North, but Newcastle would give the city a run for its money any day.

In fact, what we have across the broader New England are remarkably vibrant but varied cultural activities little recognised in the metro centres. It’s not just Armidale or Newcastle or Tamworth, each interesting if different, but a range of other centres as well.

For my part, I have only realised this since I started writing so heavily on New England life. It’s really quite remarkable.

But that’s a story for another column!

1 comment:

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