Monday, 2 January 2012

Lump Pearl

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve.

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames.

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

Lump Pearl (by Henk Nellekens)

Timothy’s Lot lies to the north-east of Port Macquarie in a barren region of Western Australia that is known as The Whitings. The geology of this area is veined with gypsum deposits. It is this mineral resource that makes habitation here bearable and alone accounts for the longevity of the settlement.

When Pamela Finn visited the town in 1919, she was following the historical trail of its founder – the industrialist - Timothy Pennington, about whom she was writing a biography. Upon her arrival the locals quickly divested her of the notion that the colony had been named to commemorate the despised figurehead of Pennington. Instead the identity of the man whose Christian name had come to embody this squalid, weather-beaten assembly of clapboard shacks, spread evenly along the course of an open sewer, and bookended by a pair of cavernous saloons, was given as - Timothy Chitty – a former blacksmith’s apprentice from Manchester, England, who had been found guilty of stealing sheep and deported to the colonies.

Finn recorded that, despite whorehouses being banned by the town council, many of the women in Timothy’s Lot had fallen into a lifestyle of casual, opportunistic prostitution that did not limit its attentions to the opposite sex. In an article published in the December 1920 edition of The Christian Ladies Journal,  she was particularly disdainful of these womenfolk, noting: “They proudly adorn themselves with the most repugnant jewellery, fashioned from Lump Pearl which is a by-product of the gypsum mining.”

During her stay she also witnessed the final days of a captive elephant - one of an inbred herd, raised by a pair of escapees from a travelling circus, who now roamed wild and would sometimes stray onto the fringes of the town. This living trophy was kept tethered by a stout length of chain outside the front of a saloon bar known as Frostie’s, whose patrons were quick to regale Finn with detailed accounts of the four separate occasions during which they had fought off the herd’s apparent disorganised attempts to free their imprisoned comrade.

After the elephant finally lay down and then died, following almost two days of breathing so painfully laboured that few could bear to hear it, the body was dragged to the church and buried in unconsecrated ground just outside the cemetery, where it was soon disinterred by scavenging animals. In a eulogy given by the local priest he summarised that, during its miserable 10 months in captivity, the elephant, in addition to demolishing a carelessly parked wagon, had also killed three dogs, a “decent” horse and a tailor by the name of Boris Gorrell who, one night, had drunkenly stumbled into its path and been trampled to death.

In a further article about Timothy’s Lot, penned by Finn for The Manchester Guardian she gives an account of the Death Belts worn by the men who worked in the gypsum mines. These were laden with small explosive charges – enough to bring down a crushing weight of rock upon the body of man trapped underground by a cave-in, thereby sparing the unfortunate fellow a slow death from thirst or suffocation.

The population of the settlement declined during the years following the end of the Second World War and 
was abandoned entirely in 1964, following a hurricane that destroyed all but three of the remaining buildings.

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