Some memoirs of Innisfail

By John Ray

I was born in Innisfail in the '40s but my family moved to Stratford in Cairns when I was 13 so my memories of Innisfail are a bit vague. I do remember however that there was a secondhand dealer in the main street called Clem Theodossiou, a member of Innisfail's considerable Greek community and I also remember some sort of trucking firm run by people with the surname "Blennerhasset" -- which is actually an English name from the old Norse -- reflecting the times when Northern England in particular was under Norse domination. And there was a man there by the surname of Mascarenhas -- a Portuguese or Goan name. I think he was a bootmaker (cobbler) but I may be mixing him up with a Sydney bootmaker of that name.

Another early memory is of the Innisfail railway station -- which I always liked. It is a very old timber structure. It was great when the big black steam trains used to come in: Hissing steam, gleaming pistons and an engine sound like panting. I remember my Grandmother arriving on one and can still almost smell the coal smoke.

I also remember the Chinese Joss house. It was a small temple with a couple of old Chinese men as custodians who lived out the back of it. Once when I was about 9 (I suppose) I went in there and banged the big ceremonial drum they had there. One of the old Chinese men popped out and, far from scolding me for misusing the drum gave me a mango. I guess he thought that little blond-haired kids were cute. The drum is still there but these days is out of the reach of kids.

Other memories of Innisfail at that time are the Greek Orthodox church down the road where all the Greek kids used to go after school for "Greek School", Lee Long, the Chinese grocer where my mother shopped, and the old cable-driven ferry that used to take cars across the Johnstone river. I spent a lot of some weekends riding to and fro on the ferry. My parents knew but did not care. Seeing I was only inches from the water most of the time I find this in retrospect rather surprising. They certainly must not have been worriers. Or perhaps I just seemed competent enough around age 8 and 9.

I also remember the "Airdome" picture theatre (with canvas seats) and the Greek cafe beside it called the "Bluebird"

And beside the Joss House but downstairs was the Greek Club. I first tasted yohgurt there. I would never have dared enter the club myself but I was taken there by the wonderful Panagiotis Kokkinidis. Can you get a more Greek name than that?

And our family doctor when I was there was Dr. Cotter, who worked from a small white stuccoed house on a corner. I remember the ficus creeper that covered much of the fence. I also first got to like crepe myrtles in Innisfail. They are called "Christmas bushes" there because they blossom there just before Christmas.

By the way, Innisfail is an old romantic name for Ireland. It means "Isle of Destiny". My home town would appear to have been named by a homesick Irishman. Tropical Australia must indeed have seemed a long way from Ireland.

I was born in 1943 (i.e. during the Second World War) at the Innisfail hospital by the Johnstone river. I was baptized into the Innisfail congregation of the Presbyterian Church of Australia on 30.1.44.

At one time my father was cutting sugar-cane for a living. They did it by hand in those days. He used to ride to work on a bike and get back home in the evening as black as the Ace of Spades from cane soot. They used to burn the sugar-cane before harvesting in those days, to get rid of pests (rats, snakes and centipedes, mainly), disease (including Weil's disease) and the characteristic great clumps of dead leaves. Cane fires are so fierce that even the green leaves are consumed. Anyone who has noted how badly green cane leaves can cut you will know how desirable that would be to the men cutting the cane.

I first went to school at Innisfail State Rural School. I remember being plagued during my primary school years with the fact that my name was the same as that of a popular American "crooner" of the day -- Johnny Ray. I was called the "little white cloud that cries" and suchlike by teachers and students alike from time to time but I just ignored it.

A "Rural" school meant a school that offered both primary and secondary classes. It was only after my time there that a separate High School was built at Innisfail.

I started borrowing boy's yarns from both the school library and the School of Arts library in town when I was about 8 and generally read 2 or 3 books a week --- Enid Blyton, Capt. W.E. Johns, Percy F. Westerman etc. I also read a lot of non-fiction -- Ion Idriess and the like. My parents had a lot of trouble getting me to go to bed at night. I used to sit up in my bed reading.

While I was at school in Innisfail I usually went home for lunch -- though I was sometimes given sixpence to buy a meat pie from one of the two pie carts that pulled up outside the school every lunch hour. That was the only fast food at the time. Where we lived (Campbell St) was quite close to the school. I always made my own way to and from school. At first I walked and later I rode a bike. I was never driven as my mother never learned to drive.

It was while we were living at Campbell St that we had a cyclone. I loved it! The house over the road was not destroyed by the cyclone but it did develop a noticeable lean. I enjoyed walking about in the high winds and having to lean over at 45% or thereabouts in order to walk forwards at all. In retrospect I am slightly surprised that my parents let me out in it. But children generally were less protected (less mollycoddled?) in that era.

Another memory from Campbell St days is of Augie Sorensen, the milkman. Augie had a farmlet not far from us on which he ran dairy-cattle. He used to supply unpasteurized milk (probably illegally) to quite a few Innisfail households -- including ours for a while. People would leave out a container and Augie would come along and fill it with very fresh milk. The memorable thing about him however was his milk delivery vehicle -- a white horse-drawn cart that looked rather like a Roman chariot. It did however have pneumatic tyres. The milk was stored under cover at the front of the cart and Augie stood up at the back to "drive". I can still see Augie, tall and thin with his typically Scandinavian golden-brown skin and wearing his white pith helmet while standing up proudly in the back of his white cart guiding it along with his long reins. His big chestnut horse always used to have blinkers on -- probably needed if it was to be driven among motor vehicles. My mother did not patronize Augie for long. She went back to bottled milk -- probably because of health concerns. I think Augie's cattle were eventually found to have TB or brucellosis and he was shut down.

Basically, I grew up on British food -- the dreaded "meat and 3 vegetables" The British call it "plain food" and plain it certainly is. Tasteless would be another word. To the British, main-course cooking simply means to heat things up. Boil up some vegetables and fry up some meat and that is supposed to be a cooked meal. For flavouring you put salt in with the vegetables and onions in with the steak. I lived on that most nights for 16 years until I left home -- though my mother did usually make quite a good dish of spaghetti once a week and we did have the odd roast. The whole point of eating your meal was to get to the desserts at the end. British deserts are brilliant. No other culture has such a variety of such good desserts, to my knowledge. When compared to trifle, rhubarb and tapioca, lemon -meringue pie, flummery, plum pudding, apple pie etc., I find that profiteroles, gulab jamuns and the rest pale into insignificance. British dessert cooking is as brilliant as British main-course cooking is moronic.

Growing up in the tropics had some gastronomic advantages. Pawpaws fresh off the tree (practically every house had pawpaw and banana trees) are light years away from the poor things that are picked green and freighted to non-tropical areas. There should be no bitterness at all in a good pawpaw. And Granadillas are probably the best dessert fruit there is but they seem to be totally untransportable and are known only in the Innisfail/Babinda area. Granadilla and ice-cream is as good a dessert as there is. We also had guava trees growing wild all over the place at Innisfail but the fruit was said to be generally infested with worms so only the bolder kids ate guavas. I ate them a few times. They have a very delicate flavour and are popular as a source of fruit-juice in South Africa, Singapore and Fiji. That must be the Indian influence, I guess.

As kids, our main use for guavas was to make shanghais out of the branches of the tree. The branches had a lot of forks that made ideal shanghais (a shanghai is a sort of rubber-powered catapult). There were also mango trees everywhere and kids would often climb them and eat the fruit while they were up there. I ate so many mangoes fresh off the tree like that as a kid that I never bother much with mangoes now -- delicious though they are. I simply had my fill of them as a kid. Ditto for coconuts. I ate quite a lot of fresh coconut as a kid too. There were always coconut trees at the beach and you mostly didn't even have to knock coconuts off the tree. They would just fall off. And a coconut is not damaged by falling, of course. (The beach I mostly have in mind from childhood is still my ideal beach -- Etty Bay outside Innisfail. The tropical rainforest grows right down to the sand there).

The Innisfail song

The following song ("I've set sail for Innisfail") was provided some years ago by the Innisfail Chamber of Commerce (Queensland, Australia) and is here put online by John Ray, who was born and bred in Innisfail.

The words and music are by Reg. Hudson

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