Cattle sales were, for that tiny hamlet on the Wollombi Brook, a four times a year social event where old friends caught up, kids played around the brook, everyone ate too much gramma pie with clotted cream and some cattle changed hands.
Cessnock Landholders Action Group (CLAG) was formed to fight Cessnock Council’s 400% rate hike on non productive rural properties. Their strategy was clear. After the Stephen and Catherine Pile debacle, they reckoned they had found a way to squeeze new squatters off their cheap land and out of their home-made shacks.
Clearly, they were not aware of the quality of their protagonists. We had Bernie Eddie, ABC TV producer, who made an hilarious TDT episode on the subject, Guy Morrison, retired SMH Features editor who wrote our media releases and his brother Alastair, university lecturer and author of Let’s Talk Strine, to name just a few of our cast of media professionals.
This day was not a cattle sale day, but a trash and treasure day to raise money for CLAG. Sheds gave up a century of treasures to be good-naturedly haggled over. Eight or ten food stalls were selling preserves, water melon, ginger beer and the ubiquitous sausage sandwich. A bush band was torturing old favourites and families were picnicking on rugs among the cow pats. The old market place hummed with fun and frivolity until suddenly, the ambience darkened and all eyes turned to a kerfuffle at a stall where a big red faced man was berating an old lady selling cakes and tarts.
As the secretary of our gang of dissenters, I hurried over. There was our Council Health Inspector demanding the stall close.
‘Excuse me.’ I said stepping in between him and the stall. ‘I’m one of the organizers. Can I help you?’
‘There was no permission given for this!’ he frothed, waving his arms expansively to include picnickers, kids screeching around the paddock, knots of buyers and sellers, coming to rest on the stall at hand.
‘Close this down immediately or you’ll be in breach of article (something or other) and will be summonsed.’
‘I see,’ I said reasonably. ‘So all the Vinnies, Boy Scouts, CWA and footie clubs that have their stalls in town, you're saying they all have permits?’
He stared for a moment as the rusty wheels turned, but I wasn’t finished.
‘If you close this down, there’ll be a lot of angry people running around Cessnock demanding you close them too.’
That went into the thought grinder as I waited. We had form, as the say.
He was wavering as I reminded him:
‘And you know we’ll do it.’
‘OK,’ he said, red faced and frustrated. ‘I’ll let it go this time, but next time you get a permit or I will close you down!’
His eyes left mine and flicked behind me where an angry crowd was gathering. There is a time to attack and a time to retreat. This was retreat time.
I was surprised to see him at the next market with his wife and kids, standing in the gramma pie queue. ‘Good choice.’ I smiled my approval as we both pretended I was referring to the pies.