Lunatic Hill

I left school at 16 to become an electrician. I did an apprenticeship and learned all kinds of things, but I have to admit that – deep down – electricity is still a mystery to me. I know that when I connect wires to each other, stuff happens and lights go on and off but I don’t really get the whole electrons and protons bit of it. I just have to believe it’s a thing, like God or the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Australia’s Got Talent.

The creation of opal falls into this category of Processes I Don’t Get.

I read on a sign about the Griman Creek Formation, which was formed:

… during the Early Cretaceous period, 100–120 million years ago, when freshwater rivers and streams deposited layers and sand and fine silt that turned into sandstone and claystone. Much later, cavities in these rock layers filled with a silica solution that turned into opal.

Well, okay. If you say so.

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The sign’s at Lunatic Hill, which was apparently the site of the first mining settlement that eventually became Lightning Ridge. There’s a video of the indefatigable Barb Mortiz explaining the town’s different locations over time.

I went to Lunatic Hill one day when it wasn’t super hot but the air and the light had that eye hurtingly-bright quality to it.

The historical society has preserved all kinds of olden-times machinery and bits and bobs from the early days of mining. I’m not sure what part this BMX bike played in the establishment of the town, but I guess that even hardened miners have to let off steam after hard day down a shaft.

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This mini agitator is brilliant. I can say that because I’ve never spent a week chiselling dirt from a rock face, bucketing it to the surface with a hand-operated windlass and then churning the bugger of a thing for zero return. To me it’s just an artefact: cute and rustic.

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Lunatic Hill itself is neither cute nor rustic. What it is is a bloody massive hole in the Earth, the first industrial-scale attempt to get opals out of the ground. Having seen how tiny some of the most valuable opals are I could only wonder at the nature of the people that mine for a living. How many fifty thousand dollar opals get overlooked when a ton of wet slurry’s broiling out of a massive agi? God, it must be heart-breaking.

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I went with a mate from Newcastle, the artist Trevor Dickinson. He draws places, which I appreciate isn’t a very thoughtful description of what he does as lots of artists draw places. He wasn’t all that impressed with the faded agricultural service towns that string the Castlereagh Highway but he did like the Ridge, with its crazy ramshackle buildings and the general punter-focused nuttiness of the place.

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We took photos of holes.

Some of the holes had lids on and little fences around them.

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Some didn’t.

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And we took photos of bits of metal that used to trucks and cars.

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Even with sunglasses on our eyes hurt from the bright sun, the clear air and the white shincracker rock. I can understand how working out here would make you crazy. It’s illogical and unbelievable that this inhospitable patch of dirt should yield the incredibly beautiful opals that I see in the shops.

Like electricity, it’s beyond my ability to understand how some things exist: they just are.

Green Car Door Tour

If you go to Trip Advisor and check out “things to do in Lightning Ridge” there is a list of 19 attractions. This is worrying as I’ve already done numbers 1 (Chambers of the Black Hand), 2 (bore baths) and 3 (John Murray Gallery). Am I tearing through the attractions too quickly? What will I do once I’ve visited all 19 of the Ridge’s attractions? Disappointment  and long, empty days loom ahead.

But life is short. I might be struck down by a comet tomorrow having held off from visiting the other attractions and so I might die having never visited Amigo’s Castle or Bevans Black Opal and Cactus Nursery. With this new-found carpe diem spirit I leapt up from the settee, turned off the telly before the sport section had even finished and headed out to the Green Car Door Tour (Trip Advisor’s #4 attraction).

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Twenty past seven in the evening was a bit late to be starting such a significant journey. I’d heard that this car door tour was good for sunset views but the sun sets at around ten to eight at this time of year. A better organised person would have thought about the timing of the visit more closely and maybe not lay slumped in front of the telly thinking about carpe-ing the diem without actually carpe-ing it for a good half hour. Typical.

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For those who don’t know, the car door tours are short self-guided tours of Lightning Ridge and surrounds. There’s a red one, a blue one, a black one, and this — the green one. You can see a little video about it.

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Apart from the sunset views the main reason for heading out on the Green Car Door Tour is to see the Historic Monument that marks the site of the very first opal shaft, sunk in 1902 by Charlie Nettleton.

There are other significant monuments. I like the use of surplus objects for mail drops and signage that you get around here.

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The nighttime trips in the courtesy buses from the pub and bowlo will often wheel and skirt around the camps that fringe town. In winter the bus’s lights pan across mulga and sandalwood scrub occasionally lighting up car bonnets with people’s names on them marking their homes. Sometimes it’s just a picture or caricature. When you’ve have a few (and why else would you be on the courtesy bus?) it can be weirdly stimulating, like watching some strange psychedelic documentary from the pre-regulation days of the LSD revolution.

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Or maybe that’s just me.

Once you’re off the road you quickly hit the hard, white shincracker rock that overlays the opal-bearing dirt beneath. After the huge, industrial-scale opencast mining of the Grawin these wee domestic shafts and windlasses seem cute and homespun. Which, I’m guessing, are adjectives that the tough folk who actually operate the darned things have never used about them.

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The sun was getting low and the white piles of waste and tailings were coloured a range of pinks and reds and oranges.

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I was still nowhere near the sunset viewing place but, when I turned around, the sun was setting. Does it still count as a sunset viewing if there isn’t a sign nearby telling you that that’s what you’re looking at?

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Hiding my bitter disappointment at having seen the sun set in the Wrong Place, I chose to carry on, following the green car doors and the variously coloured other bits of cars that littered the side of the road.

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One of the things I’ve decided to do while I’m in the Ridge is learn to draw. There are loads of great things to draw here. This Aussie Bake van, operating a little windlass, is begging to be drawn. I hope I can do it justice.

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But the thing about sunsets is that, afterwards, it gets dark. I had to get a wriggle on (or is it “wiggle on”?), not hang around taking pictures of stuff.

At any other time I’d have been seduced by this hectic array of signs and dropped in for some fossicking and healing or to see the big milkman or the sharkadile. The video had told me that there was an opal tree on this tour and a beer-can house and a gigantic milkman made out of milk crates! My laziness in front of the telly was coming back to haunt me.

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I finally made it to the place where I was supposed to have looked at the sun. I think it would have been very impressive from here. There were other people wandering around, other people who’d set off at the right time and so had experienced the full sunset experience at the location of the first shaft. Fortunately they were distracted by their small children running towards open shafts and so I don’t think they noticed me sneaking in late.

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I went over to the monument, the monument that marks the location of Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft.

But what’s this?! The plaque says that the monument is actually in the “vicinity of” the first shaft. So this might just be any old shaft! Pah! Not only had I watched the sun go down in the Wrong Place, and missed out on seeing the Big Milkman, I now found myself standing not at Charlie Nettleton’s first shaft but in its “vicinity”!!!!

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There will be other days and other sunsets, I get that. And, unless Khan’s mounts a retrieval mission for its crates, the Big Milkman will be around for a while. And who cares about the exact location of Charlie’s first shaft.

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I’ll be fine. Life is full of disappointment. But next time I carpe diem I shall carpe it a bit earlier.

Narran Lake

Lightning Ridge is Yuwaalaraay country. The Yuwaalaraay language is no longer a first language but it’s still spoken around here, and lots of schools in the region teach Yuwaalaraay at primary level or (in high school) as part of the mandatory Languages Other Than English (LOTE) course for students in Year 7 and Year 8.

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The school in the Ridge is part of a group of schools involved in the Yuwaalaraay Language Nest, a system borrowed from the Kiwis to support and resource language maintenance. This week I was lucky enough to work with Yuwaalaraay and Gamilaraay language workers from the Ridge, Walgett, Goodooga, Collarenebri and Dubbo, sharing and developing materials for next year’s study and beyond. Part of the week involved a trip to a site of huge importance to Yuwaalaraay people: the Narran Lake.

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The Lake’s about an hour’s drive south-west of the Ridge, down the Cumborah road then south till you hit East Mullane. This former sheep and cattle station must have been super remote back in the day. It’s now the HQ for NSW National Parks & Wildlife Services, and any group that comes to study here.

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And there are lots that do. You can’t just drop in to Narran Lake. It’s not a park, it’s a nature reserve, co-managed by Parks and the Yuwaalaraay community. You have to have a reason to come here, usually scientific or cultural. There are people studying birds (the Lake’s on the Ramsar list for migrant birds), water movement, vegetation and – this past couple of weeks – a team of archaeologists from the University of New England.

Among them was Dr Mark Moore, a native of Indiana, USA, and a leading expert in stone tool manufacture, or “knapping”.

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Mark and his team were analysing earth ovens when we came across them. What looked like a bunch of rocks was in fact the exposed remains of heated stones used to cook food. We were up on the ridge, near the station, but the team had also examined these ovens down at the Lake and on the flats, though down there generations of livestock had pretty much smashed the evidence.

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As is so often the case with archaeology I had no idea what I was looking at until I’d been told. Buncha stones? Nah! This is always sobering for someone with a History degree and a qualification from the NSW Government to teach Ancient History.

The evidence wasn’t just in the stones on the ground; by mapping their location the team had developed patterns of placement, use and movement that offered a glimpse into the way that people from dozens and dozens of generations past had lived and moved on this patch of dirt. Bloody amazing.

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There were hundreds of shards of tools too. Again, things that – in my ignorance – I’d have stepped over or kicked aside. Each piece was flagged, recorded and replaced. Nothing was taken away; this is modern archaeology with a focus on the partnership between the academy and the community.

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Back at the station, in fact, there were boxes and boxes of previously plundered artefacts that are being repatriated by the university. These artefacts will be stored in a keeping place, probably at the station.

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After we left the team we dropped off the ridge and into the Lake proper. Our guides were two Yuwaalaraay men, N (Bubs) and J. These guys were brilliant: they had the extraordinary ability to simultaneously describe the world around us in the language and mindset of the Yuwaalaraay and the scientists, botanists, hydrologists and academics who make their pilgrimage to the Lake.

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We crossed a massive, two-kilometre shell midden created from seasonal feasting on freshwater shellfish created by countless generations of Yuwaalaraay people, and the visitors from who knows how many other language groups who met and camped and celebrated here over thousands of years.

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While the women took off to do whatever is Yuwaalaraay women do, Bubs and J took me around a series of lunettes recently exposed by wind and rain. The ground was littered with rocks; at least, that’s what they looked like to me. Under their tutelage I began to see hammer tools, spear barbs, axe heads, grinding stones: a whole, industrial-scale manufacturing site for the tools of living in this part of the world.

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There were amazingly complex pieces of worked stone. Who was the last person to pick up or use this drilled stone? (Dr Mark, Bubs and J conclude that it may have been used as part of a fire-starting kit.)

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The Lake wasn’t full, maybe half full. Black swans, pelicans, plovers, cormorants and shags squawked and wheeled in the sky around us. Against this ancient backdrop, the occasional vapour trail of some invisible passenger jet hauling tourists and business people to Singapore or Dubai scribed its way through the blueness above.

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We regathered, men and women, and headed back to the station for a late lunch of salad, and chops barbecued by Bubs and J. We were ravenous and fell on it like we hadn’t seen food in a month. Sated, we lolled around for a little while, before R and D collected some fresh sandalwood leaves, set them afire, and we passed through its aromatic smoke.

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It was a magical day. Even the tyre shredded by the brilliant white shincracker road couldn’t put a dent in our enthusiasm.

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The Lake was unlike anywhere else I’d been and, without wanting to sound like I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been fortunate and privileged enough to have visited some quite extraordinary places in my time. I doubt Narran Lake would have had such an impact on me without the company of the Yuwaalaraay people, and Dr Mark and his team.

On Friday night at the pub, the usual group of wise men lamented modern politics and we gnashed our teeth and shredded our garments over the exponential surge in global population and the rise of the Stupid People and wondered, pessimistically, where it would all end. Then we drank some more and solved all those easily solvable problems (global pandemic, anyone?). At least, it appeared to have been solved until Saturday morning, when we woke to find that the Stupids were still in charge and the population was still exploding.

But Narran Lake will still be there, in all its quietness and stillness.

Food Safari 5: Garlic balls

When I’m driving the school bus on an excursion it does not seem to matter how far the intended journey – Coonamble, Sydney, Kwazululand, Riems Cathedral – it’s a given that first stop will be Walgett Road House.

The Ridge’s lack of franchised fast food outlets means that the kids have a fixation for deep-fried tat of any kind, and the road house seems to provide the next-best experience of driving in (if not thru) and getting some scalding hot saturated fat.

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We were off to Dubbo the other week and pulled in around morning tea time. The glass cabinets were filled with rows of those yellow paper cups with hot chips and wedges and bits of chickens’ limbs. It looked like an installation and I’m sure if there’d been a artist’s statement next to it the National Gallery would have acquired it.

There were also rounded food-like objects in those yellow cups, about six of them to a serve. The kids told me they were “garlic balls”. They sounded delicious! I handed over my money and scampered back to the bus, like Gollum with his ring.

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I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got. I sank my teeth into the crusty breadcrumb coating and I hit a spongy layer of  … huh? Chicken? For some reason I’d thought it might be a vegetarian dish, like deep-fried balls of garlic bread. Oh no! Oh very no! How wrong was I! It was chook, all right, followed by a molten core of gooey garlicky … stuff.

It was really hard to work out what that middle bit was made out of. A mate came up from Newcastle this weekend and I tried to explain it to him and it was impossible. It defied my every attempt to describe it, even when I brought up the picture on my phone and we zoomed in.

Is it even a food? Maybe it’s something else, like a colour or a half-remembered dream or the strange nostalgia you have for something that happened not all that long ago, like when I think of the nights I spent this cold winter when I didn’t have a telly, sitting in bed and working my way through Game of Thrones and House of Cards on my laptop.

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I think that’s it. I think garlic balls are not a food, they are a feeling. They’re a material representation of the sense of remorse and nausea-inducing anxiety you get when you make a Bad Choice. That and the dark, lonely sadness of knowing that not only have you taken a wrong path but that you’ll continue on that path until you’ve finished, no matter what good sense and bitter experience tells you.

This I know to be true because, in spite of everything my body told me, I finished all of my garlic balls. All six of them.

I do not want to have that feeling ever again.

Cemetery

Who doesn’t love a graveyard? All of life is laid there before you.

The Ridge doesn’t have a graveyard. I think I kind of knew the difference between a graveyard and cemetery but I still Googled, because that’s what we do these days. We used to know stuff but nowadays we’re not quite sure until Google’s said it’s ok. So, yeah, a graveyard’s a burial place attached to a church and a cemetery isn’t. The Ridge has a cemetry. It would be churlish of me to point out the typo, but sometimes we have to embrace our inner churl.

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I went in the afternoon when the sun was setting and so there was a bit of glare. I thought, I should come back in the morning when the light’s pointing in the right direction. But I know myself, and I knew I wouldn’t, so I stuck my hand up to block the sun a bit.

The most striking aspect of this cemetery is the large number of graves marked “Unknown”. So many of them: people (mostly men, I’m guessing) from Australia and from every corner of the earth, who found themselves washed up in the Ridge.

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Clever journalist Michelle Innis published an article in the New York Times (yes, the NYT) about the Lightning Ridge Funeral Advisory Service, the volunteer undertaking that has laid many knowns and unknowns to rest.

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There are few ostentatious graves here. The simple logistics of carting marble angels up the dirt track in the old days would be enough to put anyone off.

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The more modern graves are often decorated in the style of those roadside memorials that have become a feature of Australian highways in the last few decades. They’re very personalised, often bright and lively and not at all like the morose statuary that I think of when I remember the little graveyard next to Saint Peter’s, the church in the village where I grew up.

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I like that people feel free to decorate their loved one’s grave with the things that meant so much to them in life. There’s a person in there: a real person who lived and loved, and who is still loved.

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Not all the decoration is super-glam. A simple handbag can mean as much as a whole wall of flowers and cherubs. Was this a favourite item? Or is it a private joke? (“For goodness sake, mum, let me buy you a new bag!” “Nothing wrong with this one. It’ll outlast me – and you!”)

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Being the Ridge there are of course many, many graves from people who came from Mittel Europa, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and Aegean. It’s nice to know that someone took the time to sit with Jozo and finish off a couple of coldies with him.

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Often the plastic flowers are the colours of national flags. What’s this: Croatia? Who knows.

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That’s the thing about graveyards: our most private relationships are set out on public display for gawkers like me stop at and wonder about.

The dead have no privacy, that’s a fact, but the Lightning Ridge Cemetry is a quiet and respectful place where it’s possible to meet real people, people who just happen to be dead.

Potch Queen

If you are sensitive, or think you may become unsettled by images of munted opal miners in drag, scroll no further. For the rest of us: woo hoo! POTCH QUEEN!!!!

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The opal is Australia’s national gemstone, and the mid-year Opal Queen is a chance for the town’s ladies to shine. They dress up in all their finery, promenade and do an interview, and the winner goes on to represent the Ridge at various, I dunno, opally things.

Potch is the word for the other 99.9% of the crap that you pull out of the ground when you’re looking for the precious. It’s the worthless crud of mining, the heart-breakingly valueless junk that most miners spend most of their days looking at and weeping about.

So what better counterpoint to Opal Queen than Potch Queen?

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I’d been hearing about Potch Queen since I got to town. I think it’s fair to say it’s the most anticipated event in the Ridge. Sure, Opal Queen’s a big do and the Opal Festival is a massive drawcard, but ask people which night they’re hanging out for and there’s only one answer. The premise is simple: men dress up as women and do a dance on a stage. The cunningly crafted catch is that the entrants get free grog all day as their reward for having a go and so, by the time they actually hit the stage, they are totally blootered. Stories abound of drag queens falling into the audience and of various “bits” becoming liberated from ambitiously small g-strings. And all this is not just for the fun of it! Oh no, it is in fact a fundraiser for … the local childcare centre! Gotta love the Ridge.

There was a dress theme of “Celebrity” and our MCs for the night were Madonna and Prince. If it weren’t for the fact that I’d heard a rumour His Purpleness was dead I’d have believed I was in the company of the real thing. Less certain about Madge.

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For the rest of us the theme may just as well have been “Dress up in whatever you’ve got”. I’m sure that the Mad Hatter, Fred Flintstone and Beetlejuice aren’t actually celebrities, but they looked great.

There were pre-drinks at a friend’s place but when I turned up I was told in no uncertain terms that I’d failed to reach the appropriate standard. I was given a selection a blouses and told to go home with and try again. I’m no expert but I reckoned the blouses made me look like a retired porn star and so I had a scrabble through the wardrobe and I managed to dig out a white shirt, bow tie and evening jacket (just the basics necessary for a summer in the Ridge) and re-emerged, transformed. I was supposed to be Sean Connery as 007 but everyone thought I was “seat filler at the Golden Globes”. Whatever.

The sun disappeared in the direction of the Grawin and billions of moths and flying critters swirled like tornadoes around the stage lights. Our judges were Lynn and Paul, a couple from the Central Coast who’d come to town to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. If they thought they were in for a quiet weekend then they were mistaken; the MC had dragged them from their motel room with, I expect, the promise of free piss and instant stardom. I asked Lynn at half time how it was going. She had the shellshocked expression of someone who’s just watched a petrol tanker crash into a children’s hospital and mumbled something about it being “a bit different”. You bet! Let’s go!

The first entrant was Helen B Generous. Always a tough gig, getting up first, and like the first pancake Helen did struggle a bit. But the crowd got behind him. Her. We were off!

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Second entrant was, I think, Amanda Lick. Geddit?!

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Amanda put everything into her dance, so much so that, during the interview (“What’s your ultimate sexual fantasy with a man?”) she kind of ground to a halt, her lips moving but no words coming out until she finally managed to stammer “Sex?” Big cheer.

The third entrant was, disturbingly, a student from school. The assembled teachers winced and grimaced and formed themselves into a defensive phalanx by the back wall. Yes, he’s 18 and theoretically in control of all his decisions, but … shallow breathing … oh god …

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She came on as Betty White to Thank You For Being A Friend, the theme tune from The Golden Girls, but then cut into It’s Raining Men. Holy shit. The party started. I’m not sure how Lynn and Paul felt when Betty shimmied from the catwalk, strode across the benches and hurled herself into the judges’ table. But the crowd lapped it up.

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Jugs were hurled through the air. People cheered. The teachers stopped hyperventilating and allowed themselves to start breathing normally. For the moment.

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You may notice a gradual degradation in the quality of the pictures from here on in. I think I might write to Apple because it always seems to happen later at night: the pictures get less focused and more loosely framed. Does anyone else have this problem?

There was an interval and so the crowd swarmed around the bar to pick up cans of Bundy and Beam and beer in plastic cups. Then Prince and Madonna announced competitions for the best men’s and women’s costumes. My Golden Globes Seat-Filler costume caught Madge’s eye and so, excruciatingly, I found myself on the stage next to Al Capone, Herman Munster, Steve Irwin and bunch of other men, all of whom seemed drunker and happier to be there than me. I thought we just had to stand there and be voted on but, no, we had to do a catwalk shimmy for the judges. Holy fucking fucketty fuck fuck fuck. I won’t go into detail, but I can now say that I’ve done the catwalk at Potch Queen. Fully clothed.

The women were better than the men. Isn’t that always the way? In style of a true Shakespearean farce the men were women and many of the women were men; it has to be said that the two Cap’n Jack Sparrows (both women) looked more like Johnny Depp than he does. There was a Red Foo, a Frida Kahlo, a Lara Croft, a Courtney Love, an Al Capone.

The winner was Lady GaGa. Thankfully, given the flies we’ve had lately, she wasn’t wearing a suit made of bacon and salami. She was, in fact, wearing bugger all, but my goodness she wore it well. Oh to be that young, hot and confident!

And then it was straight into Round 2. First up was Mary Jane Rock Your Brain. I think this was the first occasion of “bits” emerging. Well, I mean, look at that tiny red thing. It was bound to happen.

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MJ got into character, sculling most of a goon sack before tearing it open and writhing around in the sticky mess. Crowd: ecstatic. But there was more! Too much? What is “too much” at Potch Queen? There is no “too much”.

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Tina Queen Of The Outback hit the stage next. Tina was bloody awesome. What a routine!

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Again, my phone doesn’t do it justice. I think her tune was either Cherry Pie or I Touch Myself or maybe even both: it was getting loose by this point and my ability to keep accurate records was becoming compromised. Who was this? Cinderella? No idea!

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There was a young fella on and I didn’t get any pictures of him because, I think, he had the most mesmerisingly awesome bum I’d ever seen. A rumour swept the place that he was a pro drag queen up from Newcastle. I’d believe it! A friend said she preferred legs with a bit more muscle on them but I thought they were about as good as legs get.

I was still fanning myself when the next contestant came on. By this stage I was giddy and struggling to keep up with events. This one was called … um … can’t remember and danced to … ah … buggered if I know.

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But I’m guessing he didn’t get those boots at Duncan’s or Mr Cheap.

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Who was this? Nope. No idea. None whatsoever.

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At the end of the catwalking bit all the entrants came out and did a kind of impromptu mass dance-off. It was all a bit weird. I wondered what Lynn and Paul were thinking. Do they have children? What would they tell them about their holiday?

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Thankfully, whatever their feelings, they took their job seriously. I think the winner was Tina Queen Of The Outback. Or was she Miss Personality? Again, the details were becoming sketchy. And, anyway, did anyone really care?

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With the main part of the night over the catwalk was dragged off to one side and the dancefloor opened up. Pope Francis commandeered the catwalk for a rousing rendition of Village People’s YMCA before holding an improvised communion from a plastic goblet of Bundy Red Rum and a packet of rice crackers.

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The floor was covered in a thick mulch of crushed Bundy cans and broken plastic glasses. The music was – how can I put it? – eclectic. The DJ segued neatly from Highway to Hell to Shorty Got Low to Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy and everyone kept going without batting an eye or missing a beat. Around midnight the place had become a chaotic mash-up of a B&S ball and a primary school disco, with lines of happy drunks doing the Nutbush and the Time Warp and the Macarena.

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I think I bailed about 1.30.

Is there anything more poignant than a red carpet at the end of the night?

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I could still hear the music as I walked down the Three Mile Road. A car that was headed into town saw me, dipped its lights, slowed a bit for a look at this middle-aged dude in a faux tuxedo who looked like he’d just finished a shift filling seats at the Golden Globes. Then it sped up, fishtailed and gave me a yahoo on the horn.

Potch Queen: you were all that I could have hoped for. But Sunday will be quiet. Very, very quiet.