And that’s how you’re farewelled in Griffith, a country town famous for its lush greenery, its wineries, and its uniquely multicultural makeup. Griffith is a town where world class cappuccinos and the smell of basil follows you down the sun-baked main road, weaves its way around old brick buildings and war memorial statues, and tries to lure you in for a second lunch.
While Griffith has a huge Italian community, it is also made up of people from many other backgrounds; there are big populations of Indian, Samoan and Afghani people, as well as indigenous Australians. This diversity means that walking down Banna Avenue is a particularly interesting combination of sights and culinary smells. For someone like me, for whom “cheese” is a hobby, it’s heaven.
This week I begin two weeks of residency in Griffith, where I will be running workshops at Griffith High with Year 10 English students. Together, we’ll be developing and building on the skills to write about issues, people and events that matter to these young people. The hope is that, by the end of my residency, we will have a huge resource of new writing by local voices, stories that contradict a lot of peoples’ assumptions about what outback stories have usually looked like.
In the meantime, before classes kick off, I got some time to explore Griffith. This took the form of one of the friendliest Coles visits in my life (“you know why you’re tired from your flight? The blood in your brain gets compressed up there in the sky. It’s true! Now, when you eat this papaya, cut out that bit that looks weird. It’s not a worm or anything. But you should cut it out. See ya!”)
Therefore, to get more oxygen in my poor compressed brain-blood, I went walking on Scenic Drive, where I discovered Hermit’s Cave. This is a large area consisting of a series of caves and tamed greenery set into a cliff overlooking Griffith town, where a man named Valerio Ricetti spent a period of the late 1920s to early 1950s living al fresco.
The history is fascinating: Ricetti immigrated from Italy before World War I and, on landing in Australia took a series of fruit picking, pruning and mining jobs. His story is not conclusively told; if anything, the local history and the folklore around him is maybe more fascinating than the genuine facts. We can piece together that he was hard working, easily trusting, and constantly taken advantage of. Stories show a pattern of Ricetti being swindled out of money and property by supposed friends, and cuckolded by a woman, “Joyce”, who kept him dangling by a string while he did her housework for her and her actual boyfriend.
You can see how Ricetti’s erosion of faith in humanity slowly took place. He left Broken Hill and Joyce behind, and he travelled through country New South Wales looking for a place to call his own. In 1929, he found it. Hermit’s Cave became personalised with a space for sleeping, a chapel, and a lush garden. Ricetti was self-sufficient for food, only occasionally buying matches and flour from town.
Hermit’s Cave became a sightseeing spot for tourists on weekends, with Ricetti occasionally included in happy snaps, if he hadn’t scuttled away quickly enough to hide himself on tourists’ approach.
In World War II, Ricetti was arrested as a suspected Italian spy because, amongst his wall paintings in the cave (daisies, hearts and anchors) was also a swastika. After being released, he’d still find himself frozen in panic at the sight of military uniforms, terrified by the arbitrary nature of his first arrest, and therefore the possibility that it could happen once again, without warning.
Ricetti’s story is epic; I’ve related just the tip of iceberg. It has been fascinating to wade through alternative histories in attempts to construct the real deal. Of course, it’s impossible to find a “real deal”. Instead, I can just enjoy the bias and the personality that peppers the way Ricetti has been written about. The most reliable book (by Peter Ceccato, a man whose family lodged Ricetti and who worked with him) is written in a quite charming stream of consciousness style, dipping in and out of first and third person narrative, with a “fact check” bibliography repeating the line “READ THE BOOK” to his factual dissenters.
These disparate histories are one part of the flavour of Griffith history, an addition to the mix of basil and cappuccino, rice and grapes, oranges and rockmelons, upon which this town balances.
This town is full of stories. Ricetti’s was just one.
I have two weeks to find many, many more.