Ballina. Tuesday, 1.05pm.
I remember when the Big Prawn was in an awful state. Feelers broken, shell peeling. Pale and graffitied, the poor prawn didn’t even have a tail. Those were bad days for Ballina.
The Big Prawn is the symbol of Ballina, even more than the mobility scooter.
Built in 1990 to celebrate Ballina’s prawning industry, it is a magnificent artwork in the realist tradition. If Michelangelo had been into prawns rather than boys, he would have sculptured the Big Prawn rather than David. But luckily for me he wasn’t shrimpoerotic; I don’t have to go to Florence to see this great art.
But the Big Prawn fell into disrepair, as unloved and neglected as the river it overlooked. It became a shabby shrimp, a dilapidated reminder of our flight from civic responsibility into individual gain.
I hated Ballina then.
In earlier times, before the Prawn Decline, when the Big Prawn was respected for the Ballina totem it is, and before kids looked at life through a touchscreen, I took my son up into its head (you could do that then, even without a helmet and appropriate footwear) and he looked at life through the eyes of a prawn. He found that exciting. (Boredom has its advantages.)
In 2009, Ballina Council voted to demolish the prawn. To gut it and discard it. Oh dear. Can you believe that government could be so dismissive towards things that matter?
But the people of Ballina rose in revolt. Well, they didn’t so much rise as lift themselves with walking frame and Smokey Dawson chair. And it wasn’t so much a revolt as a petition. Anyway, government, always responsive to a threat to its privileges, changed its mind. The Big Prawn would not be demolished.
Still, the prawn degraded day by day, becoming more peel than prawn, more trash than totem.
Business, always quicker than government when it comes to reading what people want, saved the day (and the prawn) when Bunnings bought the prawn as part of its invasion plan for Ballina. Hooray! Bunnings, with all the tools it needed at its disposal, renovated the crustacean. It added a tail and some paint, and made the Big Prawn better than ever. It was a great renovation job (especially considering that the technical advice, I assume, came from the staff).
Unfortunately, you still can’t climb into its head and look at life through prawn eyes.
Today, as I drive past, the Big Prawn looks proud and loved, the sun reflecting off its orange and red paintwork. (Why is it the Big Cooked Prawn? We have the Big Merino, not the Big Lamb Chop. We have the Big Banana, not the Big Banana Fritter. Why not a living prawn?)
The Big Prawn now stands (crouches?) next to Ballina’s other big attraction, the Big Hardware Shop, looking across to the Richmond River, which is the very heart of Ballina (not counting the RSL.)
Of course, like a lot of hearts in Ballina, that heart is not in such great shape. (I mean the river; the RSL is doing just fine, thank you. Ping. Ping.) The Richmond River is sick: aching with abuse, life is difficult in the river. The restaurants serve imported prawns.
The town’s heart is damaged but there’s hope (and a lot of medical centres): The Big Prawn is restored. With its river walk and riverside cafes, Ballina is turning again to face the river, to face its responsibilities, to face its future.
I hope Ballina will restart the Bundjalung practice of river care; will acknowledge that a healthy river prawn means a healthy river town.
I hope the Big Prawn will be painted an uncooked blue-green colour to reflect Ballina’s long connection to a living river.