The floods of 2022 have taken our history. Taken our stories. Taken not just the places where we live, but also the places where we gather. It’s a loss that is felt deep in the heart of our communities. And as we rebuild, we stand in the grief, in the absence of what was, and we reflect on what we once had.
Recently I went to book a comedy show into Corndale Hall. A small but vibrant country hall close to the Bexhill shop. It’s a magical meeting place, where locals and hill tribes rub shoulders with Lismore and Clunes, with drop-ins from Bangalow and beyond. Corndale is an unlikely remarkable place.
I rang the booking number only to be told ‘the hall was washed off the stumps love’. It took me a while to register. The hall was dead.
Oh. Really? How had I missed that? In all the drama and loss, I had forgotten to check if the hall had made it. It hadn’t.
The February flood sent 2.7 metres of water through Corndale Hall. This water of biblical proportions reached to the roof. It wrenched the modest little building from its footings and set it free. It collided with a power pole and was broken into pieces. Such a violent and unexpected death for such a magical place.
It made me enormously sad. That little hall that stood over 130 years, gone. The hall that has seen funerals and weddings, 21sts, wakes, concerts and possibly the most legendary comedy nights in regional NSW, gone. It was like another death.
My dear friend Jonathan Atherton, a wildly funny irreverent soul, started Corndale Hall Comedy Night in 1993 when his friends, macadamia nut farmers Chris and Pat Jung, asked him to put on a show. And wow did he put on a show. Jonathan invited comedians from around the national circuit to drop in and perform in what became a legendary gig in comedy circles. It ran for decades. I remember my first Corndale Hall Comedy Night. I had three small children in tow, the youngest still on my breast. I navigated the dark roads and found what must have been the hall. I felt like I was in a paddock. I was expecting two farmers and an esky.
I walked straight on stage to face 200 people. It was like an image from a Bruegel painting. Bearded men holding beers, women nursing children, women in the kitchen cutting cake, men in flannelette shirts squashed next to city types, all ruddy-faced and bright. All laughing together making this giant organism of joy. That was the phenomenon of Corndale Hall Comedy Night. I stood there for a moment blinking in shock and asked ‘Where did all you people come from?’
Everywhere. This hall was a meeting place for people from our entire region. Jonathan knew that. It’s why even when he moved to Singapore and created a comedy scene there, he kept coming back. Corndale Hall Comedy Night was one of my top five gigs, ever, and I’ve performed thousands of gigs over 38 years. Hearing Corndale Hall was gone shocked me. It was hard not to see the death of the hall and the death of my friend as one giant metaphysical tragedy.
My friend Jonathan sadly passed on 8 February 2022. Just weeks before the beloved hall where he did his finest work was destroyed. My friend was washed off his stumps too. Cancer has a way of doing that. Suddenly and with cruel ferocity. He was gone so suddenly.
We must rebuild Corndale Hall. It is a cultural keystone in our region. It’s a place where magic happened. And when it is rebuilt, I promise to put on a comedy show that would do Jonathan and the old hall proud.
My flood reflection is that it is not enough to just rebuild the places where we live and where we gather.
We must also rebuild the stories of who we are. Stories that reach back into the history of the loss, but also into the narrative of who we are now, and who we will become.
Halls are places where stories are made. Where stories are told.
They aren’t just buildings. They are us.