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JO CHAPMAN - CASTLEMANIA

JO CHAPMAN - CASTLEMANIA

I grew up in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. During primary school, my house backed on to bush land filled with ‘secret’ sandstone caves — perfect for exploring and hiding, and running away from home to. My younger sister and brother and I were always up for games involving imagination and dress-ups; capes, swords, invisible horses and hoop Olympics were the order of the day. We moved towns when I went to high school and while the new house had no bush at our back fence, it did have an enormous shed. This fully carpeted shed, an old book warehouse, was the source of wonder and envy to many of our friends, filled with paper-mâché creations, toys and obsolete school projects. Not to mention bottles and bottles of rainwater carefully collected and filtered by my dad. My parents are hugely environmentally conscious and instilled in us a love of the bush and of wildlife from the beginning. I’m still not big on snakes, though.

My high school was super-focused on science and maths and full of incredibly bright kids who already knew they wanted to be doctors or vets or agricultural consultants. Not me. From about the age of seven, I wanted to be ‘an actor or a writer’. Things weren’t really set up for the development of actors or writers at my school, unless you got your kicks from Gilbert & Sullivan musicals, but I discovered I also loved art. I wasn’t especially talented, but thrived on the classes and the expression of creativity during long afternoons in our de-mountable art rooms. 

I probably should have taken a year off after high school, but that wasn’t really a thing then. My choice of university course was a hybrid of practical and creative. I studied Interior Architecture at the University of Technology in the old asbestos-ridden campus in White Bay, and carried on commuting from the Blue Mountains. I worked a number of jobs over the four years, including holiday shift-worker at the height of summer in a glass factory. With the heat from the furnaces and the ever-present danger of potential industrial accident, it was like some sort of waking nightmare. Working as an usher at the local cinema was brilliant in comparison. My earnings from these jobs kept me in drawing and presentation materials and not much more.

At the beginning of my course we were pretty much guaranteed a job at the other end, but midway through my third year the bottom fell out of the building industry.  Only a handful of us landed a job in our field. I wasn’t one of them, but dabbled as a freelancer for a bit. The project manager on my second job skipped the country owing hundreds of thousands of dollars. In retrospect it was probably a valuable lesson of some kind, but at the time $2000 was a vast sum of money to miss out on. I worked various jobs for the next year or so and saved just enough to get to Europe as a backpacker. I wanted to see all the iconic buildings and art treasures I’d only seen in books before. 

In London, I fell into a fantastic bookshop job and stayed on. The people I worked with were funny and clever and had lots of things going on outside work. They introduced me to parts of London I never would have discovered otherwise. Britpop was having its heyday, Nick Cave and Alan Rickman were regular customers, it was the perfect time to be there. Our bookshop chain was also flavour of the moment and we were always being invited to publisher events and to author readings. I shook Salman Rushdie’s hand in a secret venue post-fatwa and heard Richard Ford and Kazuo Ishiguro read from their new novels.

I arrived back in Sydney, irrevocably changed and completely broke. I needed a job quickly and took the first bookshop job that came my way. It was a big letdown after my London experience. We had to wear a uniform and were expected to chase shoplifters down George Street. The best thing about it was that it led to one publishing job, then a move to Melbourne for another. And now a third, where I’ve been for longer than I want to think about.

Castlemaine had been on my ‘one day’ list for years and years. I had a horrible boss at the time and was tired of the police helicopters circling over the lane ways behind my house every night, and any opportunity to change an aspect of my life was an opportunity not to be passed up. One of the printers who does work for us casually mentioned that one of his customers commuted from Castlemaine every day. I went home that night and Googled train timetables and rental houses. I caught the train up a few days later and by Kyneton I’d decided that it was just too far. But when I got off at Castlemaine it felt like home. Instantly. A month later I was living in a stone house behind Buda and contemplating how I was going to have to retrain myself to get up at 5am. That was over nine years ago.

It’s hard to say how the town has changed since then.  I think it’s to do with the rate of change more than the actual changes. I really thought I was doing something unusual, against the grain, by moving here from the ‘big smoke’. It was only when I began talking to others that I realised every second person was new or newish to town. Even without meaning to, we’ve brought new ideas and expectations and, in some cases, more disposable income into the area. Businesses and new enterprises have opened, others have closed or changed hands.  If I can see these changes in 9 or 10 years, I can only imagine what it’s like for people who have lived here most or all of their lives. Over the time I’ve been here there have been lots of people vocalising their anger or frustration about ‘blow-ins’ coming in and changing the cultural and physical landscape of their town. I can empathise with their fear that things are changing and are often out of their control — it is confronting. On paper the argument is that all of us (non-Indigenous) folk have come here because we, or previous generations of our families, were looking for a better life of some sort. It’s less easy explaining that to someone who feels like they’re not able to buy a house in the town they were born because city people are pushing up the prices. There’s no easy solution to the problem, apart from maybe keeping an open mind about things. About why people might feel a certain way or do things a certain way. 

I moved to town without knowing a soul. Commuting to work meant that I was having fewer daily interactions with locals and it took ages for me to feel like I was settling in. I’d pour over the local papers and read the noticeboard outside Stoneman’s to see which dog was lost or who was selling a car. Sometimes I saw notices about events, but the only way to find out more was to call the number listed. In October 2009, a year after I moved up, I was chatting to a friend on the train on the way home saying that I really wanted to set up a Facebook group to help find out what was going on around town; what things there were to do. She basically said ‘you should!’ and that was the night Castlemania was born.

Facebook was still really in its infancy then, although more and more people were signing up. For the first six months Castlemania had about seven members and I was pretty much the only one posting. I’d dig around for all the information I could find on markets, gigs, clubs and so on and then post a summary, sometimes with a bit of commentary. I tried to get the others to contribute, but mostly they didn’t. Whether because they were just shy or secretly rolling their eyes, I don’t know. As comic relief I started posting pictures of people I found on the internet with the enormous vegetables they’d grown. 

Eventually things started to pick up. A little like the old ‘compound interest’ model I’d heard so much about but have never been able to put into practice. Somebody invited a handful of people to join, those people each invited a handful of people and the snowball started to roll. People like David and Sarah who used to run the Theatre Royal were early adopters, which was great as we had early news of shows coming up. More and more people joined and started posting.

Most of the posts during my time as administrator were in the scope of the site (things to do, lost animals, garage sales, tradie recommendations). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of lost animals have been reunited with their owners over the years. People have found housemates, floated business ideas, made friends through the group or spin-off groups. On the flip side, huge, endless circular arguments have been had, enemies have been created, and on some days the group seemed to become a forum for complaints: someone looked at someone else the wrong way, a business was shut at the precise moment someone wanted to use it, or the price of something was higher than the price seen elsewhere. Frankly, it was a bit depressing. 

Facebook, and social media in general, is just a tool and a group like Castlemania is only as good as the quality of its content and the interactions between its members. The bigger it gets, the more unwieldy it becomes and the more likely that its members have a different idea on how things should be run. It also means that posts are pushed down the page really quickly unless they’re sensational enough to generate regular comments and keep them close to the top. With well over 9000 members now, the chances of your post staying close to the top is pretty minimal. Most people won’t scroll far down unless they happen to have a lot of time on their hands. This kind of algorithm favours the people who do post controversial material, but is frustrating for people who don’t.

I work for a science and technology publisher in the semi-industrial wastelands of Clayton/Mulgrave. The work is interesting — all kinds of digital and web projects involving how people’s research is presented and delivered to the end user, plus developing the social media strategy — but the commute is horrendous. Three hours each way on a good day. And a good day is one with no ‘heat speed’ restrictions, signal failures, cancelled trains or millipede plagues. We used to be in Collingwood, which was great for pretty much everything. Now I listen to a lot of podcasts. I read, listen to music and stare out the window and make lists of all the things I’d be doing if I wasn’t on the train. I also take a lot (a lot) of commuting photos, which any of my Facebook friends will attest to, and write a virtual travel blog where my imaginary boyfriend Leroy and I take day trips to places I'd love to see in real life.

At around the four year mark I started to run out of steam. I’d created the alter ego Castlemania Castlemania to help raise the profile of the moderator role and lend some gravitas to admin decisions. ‘He’ was more popular and funnier than I was, and lots of people wanted to be Facebook friends with him, but no one really listened to either of us unless they had a problem they wanted sorting out. And it tended to be the same problems in new clothes. 

I had a trusted group of offline and online friends I’d run things by, but it was still getting to me. An issue would surface at Southern Cross on my way home, and I’d be trying to deal with it through all the internet black spots. Messaging people and waiting another 20km or so until a reply arrived. There was also the vetting of people trying to join. I tried to limit it to people who had some connection with the town, and to weed out the hackers, scammers and convicted child sex offenders. And I’m not being sensational. Some days it was hard going. That’s not to say there weren’t fantastic things going in as well, because there were.I put the word out amongst friends saying that I was thinking of handing the group over to someone else but would be happy to be co-admin if one of them was interested in taking on the job. A friend (who would rather remain anonymous) and I shared the job for another six months before we handed it on again. 

There have been many posts that have stood out over the years. Some have been hilarious (intentionally or otherwise) and I have developed great respect for the people in town who do use social media well, even under pressure. The EPIC (Enough Pokies in Castlemaine) days stand out as particularly fraught. The vitriol shocked me, even after other serious online arguments that had been staged on Castlemania. In my (biased) opinion, some of the best posts have been photographs that have made people pause. Made them consider what a beautiful area of the world we live in. Others have been about people who’ve gone out of their way to do things for others without any expectation of something in return. Or the seriously funny posts that take the sting out of situation.

I still use the site to share information. I left for a little while at one point because I was tired of seeing all the squabbling, but it’s really the best central resource we have for the towns in our shire. And the most alive, current and relevant. You see real-time arguments or fears about fires and floods, plus all the good stuff. 

Favourite things to do in the area: Where to start? It’s such a cliché but I’m a sucker for a great coffee and we have no shortage of those in town. I try and mix it up and share the love around. Music, music, music at the Royal, the Bridge and any number of other venues. Dog Rocks and the view from the top of Mt Alexander. Knowing the various markets are there, even if I don’t always make it along. One of my favourite things of all though is our big, big sky and its ever-changing light. It makes me feel like I can breathe properly.

Tips for anyone thinking about moving out here: I’m in no position to offer tips since I ignored them all when I moved up. I would say, though, that you need to be prepared for stinking hot summers and lingering winters. And the need to grow hardier plants than you ever knew existed. You also need to consider what you’re going to do when you get here. Are you going to commute by public transport? If you are, be prepared for weather-induced delays and cultivate new interests that you can develop sitting on a train with limited internet access. I’d also say, jump in, try new stuff. Volunteer, go to the community lunches, introduce yourself on Castlemania. It’s the best way of gaining a toehold in the community. Either that or do something so nefarious that you be become part of the town’s folklore. Castlemaine is a small place, after all.

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LAURA NOONAN - QUEEN OF STEMS

LAURA NOONAN - QUEEN OF STEMS

ROUND TWO

ROUND TWO