At the main intersection in Bexley North, traffic snarls by, lurching towards or away from the M5 on-ramp on the far side of the Wolli Creek valley. On one side of the intersection are shops, built in the 1930s, when the East Hills railway station opened and the suburb with its rows of red-brick houses came into being. On the other side is the Bexley North Hotel, a supermarket, and a row of shops with a wide carpark in front of them, hidden behind a screen of trees, lawn, and overgrown garden beds. This, a sign indicates, is Nairn Gardens.
I wasn’t paying Nairn Gardens particular attention, apart from noticing it had a substantial sign for a small, nondescript park, but as I continued on the path through the gardens, something else caught my eye. A round bronze plaque with a colourful insignia on it, on the side of a concrete structure that enclosed a row of benches. From this, I learnt that the Gardens had, in 1966, won second prize in the Sydney Morning Herald Garden Competition. I looked up, across the overgrown rockeries, a tangle of rosemary, foxtail grass, and tall conifers leaning askew, and tried to imagine the prizewinning garden hidden somewhere within it.
In 1966, it was described by the judges thus: “Much thought has been given here, with a rather difficult terrain, to produce a delightful effect which will improve even further as some of the subjects mature”, and further, “Several young poplars form an attractive background to an Olympic torch fountain, while an outstanding soulangiana magnolia and crotalaria added their charm. A well designed rock garden, with rosemary, hebes, dwarf conifers, nandinas, goldfussia, diosmas, mesembryanthemums, sedums, and alpines, gave a great permanency to the display.”
The rocks were still there, in terraced rows leading down from street level, and the rosemary and the conifers had matured into unruliness. Essentially, though, the winning garden had disappeared, apart from the plaques that commemorated the prize. It felt something like coming across a trophy in an op shop, engraved with a name and achievement, but disconnected from its champion.
The fountain had been installed with great fanfare in 1964, in commemoration of Bexley North’s Olympic medallist, the swimmer Robert Windle, who had won gold in that year’s Tokyo Olympics. The fountain had a prominent position on the corner, instantly noticeable to anyone passing by, whose attention would have been captured by the sight of a giant metal tulip, with a curtain of water cascading down from its stem, rising up out of a concrete dome into which slabs of stone were set. I like to imagine that when, in August 1980, The Cure played at the Bexley North Hotel, Robert Smith might have wandered across the carpark to contemplate the fountain’s lonely prominence on the corner.
Vanished fountain, unruly garden, the mesembryanthemums long gone. In 1995, the fountain was removed, and replaced by lawn and a row of flagpoles, and the garden’s flowers were replaced by hardier species. I sit on one of the benches and look over a palm tree in a hexagonal concrete planter, set in the cusp of the park benches as an object of contemplation. The wind blows big dry leaves from the plane trees and wisps of trash across the lawn and the path. Occasionally someone comes past, carrying a bunch of Mother’s Day flowers or a bag of shopping back to the carpark. The sky is a bright blue, with big mottled stripes of clouds cutting across it. I sit on the bench in the late-afternoon sun and watch them move and disperse, slowly changing into different shapes altogether.
Signs go up in shop windows, announcing relocation, or the final sale, then the buildings stand empty. Nothing happens for a while, and it seems like maybe nothing will. But one day the demolition team arrives and begins to take the buildings down. The first thing they do is take off the awnings, so the buildings have a stripped look, pared back to the bricks. Where the awnings used to be attached a stripe of plaster, or brick, or sometimes the old signs of former businesses are revealed.
In Five Dock the strip of shops on the corner of Great North Road and East Street is the site of the new Metro station. The shops have been vacated, and the awnings removed to begin the process of demolition.
Above 163, a stretch of blue-painted sky is revealed, under which a cruise ship sails and an aeroplane lifts off. Not just any aeroplane: its distinctive wing shape and beak-like nose identify it as the luxury supersonic passenger jet, the Concorde. A trip on the Concorde was a journey like no other. Travelling at twice the speed of sound you would nevertheless be in perfect comfort, sipping French champagne. Smoked salmon and foie gras was for entree, lobster Newberg for main, and heart of palm for dessert, as you flew swift and supersonic over the ocean.
Mostly the Concorde flew the transatlantic route, between London and New York. But in 1985 the Concorde made a special record-breaking flight from London to Sydney. This was the second time a Concorde had made this journey. The first time had been for a publicity tour in 1972, when the jet was met by aviation enthusiasts as well as protesters, who carried signs that read ‘Ban the Boom’, ‘Doomsday Plane’ and ‘Atomic Fart’. Powerful jet engines and its distinctive shape gave the Concorde the ability to travel at such high speeds, but created a loud, startling sonic boom in its wake. As peaceful as it was for the passengers, on the ground below windows shook with a sound as loud and startling as an explosion.
In 1985, soon after landing, the crew were photographed on the boarding stairs holding bunches of flowers and a giant cardboard pocket watch, displaying their arrival time of 4pm, commemorating their record-breaking 17-hour flight. While this was happening, the Concorde’s passengers were transported to the harbour to start the next leg of their journey, on the QE2 cruise liner. This liner was the slow-going but sumptuous ocean equivalent of the Concorde, then the grandest, as well as one of the largest, cruise ships in the world. Fireworks and a lavish Valentines Day ball awaited them.
In Five Dock, I imagine the artist who painted the sign above the travel agency on Great North Road, up on a ladder, carefully at work, perhaps with this event in mind, and all that it promised for the future of luxury travel. The artist paints in a pale blue sky, and clouds trailing like streamers above the cruise ship. Birds flock around the ship’s hull and silhouettes of people cluster on the deck, looking over towards where the Concorde ascends. They were not to know the Concorde would only ever visit Sydney occasionally, before a devastating crash in France in 2000 would put an end to supersonic passenger travel. The skies were clear, the ocean wide.
With the festive season over, decorations have almost disappeared from shop windows and front gardens. Suburban frontyard light displays have been packed away, and the dry, dead remains of Christmas trees protrude from green waste bins. The decorations that are still up seem stubborn or stale, behind the times, which have churned on into an already stressful new year.
Driving through North Sydney, I’m not yet thinking about Christmas decorations or anything much except making sure I’m in the right lane for the Arthur Street turnoff. Berry Street splits in two like ram’s horns, left to go north, right to the bridge. Choose wisely, for the Warringah Expressway awaits below. There’s an intensity to this intersection, perched as it is at the edge of the North Sydney high-rises. Here the view opens up towards the sky and the harbour and the far shore of the eastern suburbs. Below is fifteen lanes of surging motorway traffic although this is, from this high vantage point, out of sight.
I turn into the lane closest to the edge, which is hemmed in by a barrier and a railing. Beside the lane is a narrow strip of concrete, which runs the length of the road. Something glittery catches my eye. A short way along the roadside, from a crack in the concrete, against the odds, a tree is growing. It is a casuarina tree, about two metres high, roughly the shape and size of a Christmas tree. Evidently someone had noticed this, as its lower branches had been decorated with glittery plastic ribbons. What a tenacious little tree, there amid the concrete and the traffic, thriving where no tree is meant to grow.
I might have noticed the tree and keep going on my way, but instead I change lanes and travel back around the block. I park the car in a laneway between two rows of office buildings, where the mood is concrete, security cameras, and garage doors with ads for Magic Button (featuring the cheerful mascot of a magician figure in a tuxedo with a button for a head, pressing down on the top of it to release a shower of sparks).
No one much is around, a combination of it being the first week of the year and the recent huge upsurge in Covid infections. This means there’s less traffic, too, which is helpful as I dash across the road, to the siding just before the strip of pavement with the tree. Here it’s wide enough to stand to take a photo, though I feel conspicuous as the cars go past. Like the tree, here by the precipice of the motorway, I stand in an unlikely place. For a moment I take in the view of the lanes of traffic below and then the harbour, before dashing back across to safety.
Later, I look up the slices of time captured by Google Street View to follow the tree’s growth. It’s not there in November 2017, but then by the next image, October 2018, it’s a small, sturdy sapling. By November 2019 it’s up above the railing. I watch it get taller over 2020, then 2021, until the last capture in May, in which it looks much like it does now in its decorated form. I think of it growing these last four years, nourished by the sunlight and the rain, as the skies filled with bushfire smoke for months, and then the traffic dwindled as the city went through lockdowns. Maybe it was during lockdown that the person who decorated it had noticed it, in that time when local details were our comfort.
I walk the long way back to the car, deciding to look around North Sydney a little bit. My mental map of it is outdated by decades: going past on the expressway I still look up expecting to see the clock/temperature that used to be up on the side of the Konica Minolta building (then the Sunsuper building). I had a childhood association with it, where it represented for me both the high rise world of business and something closer to home: the orange numerals resembled a bedside alarm clock. A few years ago the view of it disappeared when a new gleaming glass office tower was built in front of it, but I could see it was still there, a black box high up in the top corner, visible in the gap between the buildings.
All was quiet around the offices buildings, apart from a few construction sites and removalist vans. The smokers’ courtyards were empty, and few people waited to cross at the street corners. I watched my reflection move across mirrored glass that sealed off the views into office windows. Only real estate signs gave a sense of what might be inside them.
Late on a rainy night, the lights of the Richmond Regent cinema reflect on the wet road in front of it like moonlight on water. The lights are on in the lobby and in the upper-storey windows, but the building has a dramatic, shadowy presence, befitting the drama that happens on the screens within.
The Regent dates from the picture-palace days of the 1930s, when the grand facades and elegant interiors of art deco theatres offered transformation: a new atmosphere, one elegant and magical, elevated above ordinary life. The Regent opened in 1935, a handful of years after its architects had designed another landmark theatre, the Roxy in Parramatta. It is not difficult to imagine the Regent at this time. Apart from its conversion to a twin cinema in the 1990s, it has changed comparatively little.
There are posters for the new releases affixed to the doors, and the potted palms that were once by the columns in the lobby have been replaced by a hand sanitiser dispenser and a check-in table, but the same feeling comes over me when I step inside. The Regent is the kind of cinema I visited as a child, with the same textures of velvet and carpet, and the hand-painted signs, and the sense that I had already begun to enter another, fantasy world just by stepping through the door.
Perhaps the Regent has retained its identity so strongly because it has remained independent, and only ever had three owners. The first two, coincidentally, for they were not related, were both called Michael Walsh. The third and current owner John Levy, or ‘Mr Movies’ as he is known and referred to in the cinema’s communications, bought the cinema in 1989. Now in his 80s, he will retire in January, and the cinema will be taken over by new owners. Often when I’ve come to the Regent Mr Movies has been in the box office, dispensing tickets (all tickets, all day, every day are $12), but tonight it’s just the two young staff at the candy bar.
We buy tickets to the late screening of No Time to Die and linger around in the lobby for a little while, looking at the framed photographs hung on the wall that capture it in previous incarnations. A letter from the 1930s owners around the time of the cinema’s opening promises patrons that will be experiencing “the best the world can offer” in terms of sound quality, and of comfort, with the theatre’s Dunlop Cushion Pillow Seats. A wooden sign on the stairs announced the upstairs area was closed: disappointing as up there is a 30s/80s lounge area, with mirrored columns and gold velvet armchairs.
The downstairs theatre is the original of the two: in the 90s the mezzanine seating was walled off and converted into the second theatre, but there’s still a sense of how it would have been as one big, cavernous room. The film isn’t due to start for another quarter of an hour. The curtains are drawn, and there’s no sound except for the rain outside, and no one else here, yet. A spotlight illuminates the curtains, as if at any moment someone is about to walk out on stage. I sit back in the plush red seat, a child, an adult, in the past, in the present, waiting for the film to start.
The Hunter Street entrance to the Hunter Connection shopping arcade is a canopy of mirrored tiles and neon lights, like the entrance to a 1980s nightclub. The mirror panels reflect the street and the people walking past, the angles and edges scrambling and distorting the scene below. Go under the mirrors and inside and you’ll find that the mall’s irregular shape, each floor slightly different, and the narrow stairs and escalators that lead between them, give it a maze-like quality.
Hunter Connection opened in 1982, positioning it, in the history of Sydney city shopping arcades, between the 70s excesses of Centrepoint and the postmodernism of the late-80s Skygarden. Despite the travertine marble floors and the 150 metres of skylights noted in the newspaper articles heralding its arrival, its main drawcard was its efficiency as a thoroughfare: “Soon we will be a city of hedgehogs!” wrote the Richardson and Wrench real estate news, weirdly, in 1981, “the Hunter Connection – a pedestrian refuge and mall… will provide undercover links directly from Wynyard Station through to Hunter, Pitt and George Streets.”
There’s a satisfaction which comes from navigating the city underground through its subterranean shopping malls, an experience arising from the combination of the underground railway and later 20th century high-rise developments. Picking up on this potential, the early 1970s a Wynyard Pedestrian Network had been planned, an integrated system of walkways extending out from Wynyard station. The plan proposed that navigating the network should be “a visually interesting experience for the pedestrian. Walkways should not be barren or dull; they should be full of interesting things to look at as the pedestrian walks through – changing wall and floor textures – varied spaces – differing character and atmosphere.”
This has indeed occurred, though not in the way intended by the Wynyard Pedestrian Network. The Network never came to be, but walkways were eventually built, with Hunter Connection in the 1980s, and more recently the walkway on the west side of the station linking it with Barangaroo. On the Hunter side a change in atmosphere was brought about by the refurbishment of Wynyard station, which produced a jarring underground transition between the updated sections (wide, grey, slick shopfronts) and the original underground arcade (low-ceiling, mirrors and marble).
Across the concourse from the ticket barriers there had once been steps down to a stretch of arcade which housed niche businesses such as Odette’s Perfumery and the Wynyard Coin Centre. This part of the walkway is gone, but follow the new tunnel along and you soon find yourself back in time at the Hunter Arcade.
In this section I’ve always enjoyed the infinite regress effect of the facing mirrors, and the retro, pill-shaped signs.
Hunter Arcade flows on into Hunter Connection, joining up with the lowest of its three levels. Down here the shops are of the kind that deal in minor improvements: alterations, shoe repair, nail salons, and barbers, and Wayne Massage with its window display of enthusiastic endorsements, printouts from online reviews: ‘Sir Wayne “massage” king is da “miracle” worker.’ The alterations places have displays of face masks, made of fabric offcuts or novelty prints: unicorns, chickens, kittens wearing Santa hats.
It is just over a week since lockdown lifted and some of the stores still have their shutters down or are only tentatively open. A tiny watchmaker and jeweller’s store is open but has the grille pulled across. Inside at a trestle table a man sits on a stool, bending over a repair, holding the green rubber balloon of a dust blower in one hand, a watch in the other. Handwritten signs announce that the shop is closing soon, after being in business since 1972.
From this lower level I follow the escalators upwards. There’s another wing of the arcade here, which extends out to Pitt Street. It too once had a mirrored disco entrance, although it has now been replaced with a more contemporary design: perforated beige panelling that looks like the breathable panels of an athletic shoe. Instead of heading towards Pitt Street I linger outside an alterations business (their fabric face masks include one of an illustration of a chicken, divided up into cuts of meat), looking towards the escalators that lead up to the food court on the top level. On the wall beside the escalators is a feature wall of vertical lengths of silver and smoky-tinted mirror tiles, which reflect the menu boards of the restaurants. It’s hardly the most lavish wall feature, but there’s something Tetris-like about it that pleases me.
The food court level is the busiest, and with its mirrored ceiling and gold handrails it is reminiscent of one of the Chinatown malls (a cross between Dixon House and the Sussex Centre food court, perhaps). My favourite part of this food court is the narrow terrace, just wide enough for a row of six tables, where you can sit and overlook the street as you eat your lunch. It has a view over Hunter Street, where the road dips down and then angles up again, following the declivity which marks the path of the Tank Stream as it flows towards Warrane.
Sitting at one of the tables on the terrace, I watch the clouds drift over the patch of sky in between two buildings, and listen to the city, its roar of traffic, air conditioning units, and the crunch and clang of construction.
The city continues to be torn up for the Metro, which has claimed numerous city blocks. The Hunter Connection will not escape. It is slated for demolition too, to be replaced by a station, and already some of the businesses have relocated. Handwritten signs are taped to their shutters, some noting their new addresses, others just offering thanks and farewell.
On the foot court level is the walkway that leads to George Street, another stretch of marble tiles and gold handrails. I could follow it out to the third of Hunter Connection’s street entrances, across from the George Street entrance to Wynyard Station. If you enter this way you have the choice of going up, via the walkway, or going down, on the path that leads down to the lowest level. The downward path, with the intersecting angles of the three buildings surrounding it, has an unusual geometry, the red bridge of the walkway in conversation with the textured concrete wall it faces.
Instead of going out to George Street I stop halfway along the red walkway and follow another set of escalators up, following the signs for the GPO Box Centre. Unless you rent a GPO box, or you have engaged in a thorough investigation of the Hunter Connection, you likely wouldn’t know that this is where the General Post Office Boxes are located, instead of, say, the actual General Post Office (now a hotel). Upstairs from the post boxes is the Post Restante counter, the staffing of which must surely have been the quietest job in Australia Post over the last few months.
I like it in here with the GPO Boxes. It’s calming, this open space with plants in tall pots and buzzing fluoro lights overhead. Walls of post office boxes extend and follow corners which lead into hallways with more rows of post office boxes. Walking through here the theme song from Get Smart plays in my head, and I imagine I’m here on some kind of secret spy business. That I know which, out of the 7119 post boxes that wait above the Hunter Connection, is the one that holds the message for me inside it.
In this month’s edition of Artlink: In Public/Inside is an article I’ve written about ceramic artist Vladimir Tichy, and the large-scale ceramic murals he made in the 1970s and 80s. Regular readers of this blog would know that I keep an eye on the remaining city Tichy murals – on York Street, Foveaux Street, and in the underground mall at Hyde Park Square. In the article I follow the story of these three murals, and the development of Tichy and his distinctive earthy, dreamlike style.
Vladimir Tichy was a ceramic artist who came, with his wife and daughter, to Australia in 1968, as a political refugee from Czechoslovakia. He had been well known as a ceramicist there, known for his work with porcelain, but after coming to Australia, worked in architectural ceramics, making striking, large-scale, ceramic murals.
In partnership with Rudolf Dybka at Studio Tichy, then as sole director at Studio Tichy, he created murals and tiles for newly-constructed commercial buildings, bars and RSL clubs, and government buildings. The 70s and 80s were a busy and prolific time for Tichy, and his works could be see throughout the city and suburbs, but now few remain. I always keep an eye out for them.
My new book, which has just been released, Gentle and Fierce, is a memoir that reflects on animals, place, and memory. Although it’s not as location-focussed as Mirror Sydney, much of it takes place in Sydney, and so I thought I’d take you on a short tour of a few of the Sydney places that appear in the book.
1. Devonshire Street Tunnel
The tunnel is fluorescent-lit and green-brown in tone, and walking through it I always feel as if I’m in a race with myself, zigzagging between the other walkers. I used to measure my journeys along it by the painted murals – the spaceman, the circus, the boy swimming – but, in the mid-2000s they were removed and replaced by soft-focus digital art featuring trains, that neither drew my attention nor stuck in my memory.
The tunnel invariably resounds with footsteps and the overlapping strains of buskers, echoing off the grubby tiles, but I have an affection for it. Rarely do I think about the rail lines that extend above it, even though often I’ve just alighted from a train that travelled over them; the tunnel completely seals me into its atmosphere of grime and haste. In Gentle and Fierce it appears twice, near the start and near the end, as if it marks either side of a journey.
2. Goolay’yari/ Cooks River
Which I walk along at least every week ordinarily, and more often now that we’re in lockdown. Unlike the tunnel, the river’s atmosphere is expansive, as it reflects the sky and the tide rises and falls.
A few days ago I watched the pelicans, the goolay’yari of the Dreaming story that gives the river its name. A row of them were asleep on the boom that stretches out into the river to capture the bottles and floating trash. One pelican turned to peer up at the bridge above, watching with its cartoon eye, before looking back to the water, which was moving swiftly, flowing west. In the centre of the river a moorhen swam against the flow of the tide, paddling hard and barely advancing, but continuing to swim regardless.
3. Suburban Houses
Gentle and Fierce moves through a series of houses, many of them my childhood houses: small square mid-twentieth century houses of middle-ring suburbia. Many of these particular houses have been demolished by now, but they have a firm hold in my memory, and in my dreams. And even if the houses I lived in don’t exist anymore, there are plenty like them around, similar if not the same. L-shape, blinds over the windows like eyelids, a patch of front lawn, flowers whose yearly blooms mark the passing of time.
4. Mahon Pool
My favourite ocean pool, Mahon pool was cut into the rocks to the north of Maroubra Beach in 1935. Low and square amid the sandstone outcrops, it becomes gradually visible as you descend the stairs from the park above, and I can never predict exactly how it’s going to be: low and glassy, high and sloshy, busy with kids or with only a few solitary lap-swimmers fighting the cold and the waves.
In Gentle and Fierce I write about the magpies that live on the headland, which sometimes come up to me when I sit on the particular rock at the side of the pool that is my favourite. They’re more interested in my brioche than my notebooks, where I write about the moment they stand around me, singing.
If you’re interested in Gentle and Fierce, there’s a website with some more of the stories behind the making of it here, and it’s out in bookstores (I did manage to visit it on the new release shelf in Berkelouw, just before lockdown started).
In about half an hour the citywide lockdown will be announced, but for now, I sit at the edge of the water, watching its surface sparkle in the sunlight. Not so long ago, to sit here would be to watch the steady comings and goings of international flights from the airport. The international terminal is close by, just on the other side of the water. I can see its multi-storey carparks and the belt of highway that skirts its perimeter. But only one cargo plane departs the whole time I’m sitting there, and the sky belongs to the clouds.
Oyster shells cluster on the rocks at the river’s edge. Goolay’yari/Cooks River, re-routed when the airport expanded, to a different, artificial shape, straightened out, but still the same flow of water. The wooden ramp I am sitting at the end of leads up to the rowing club, and I walk up and around to the front of the building. On the facade is a tiled mural of rowers, made by the artist Vladimir Tichy at his Studio Tichy in 1978, the same year the club opened. A gold boat, four rowers, the coxswain at the stern, calling out, his voice indicated by a gold fan-shaped speech bubble. In the last few weeks I’ve been writing an article about Tichy’s remaining ceramic murals, and this had been one I was yet to visit.
In the streets around here new apartment blocks have been constructed in the last five years, replacing the houses I had come to know from the taxi ride to or from the airport. The taxi route would dogleg through these back streets to go between the Princes Highway and Airport Drive, and I’d make a point to look for the pale yellow fibro house on the corner. One early morning, from the taxi window, I’d seen a man sitting on the front step of this house, holding a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, and patting a ginger cat with the other. I took that image of the man and his cat up into the sky with me, and call it to mind now even though there is an apartment block there instead.
Rather than go towards the airport I turn in the other direction. On one side of the road are houses, the other apartment blocks, like the road is the line between the past and future. On the apartment side there’s one house left, boarded up, fenced off, caught on the wrong side of time.
The roar of the highway grows stronger the closer I come to it. I turn onto it, the stretch leading up the hill from Wolli Creek to Arncliffe. Service stations, mechanics, car yards, and the headquarters of Golf NSW, a high bunker of a building with long mirrored windows and an impenetrable facade.
Steps beside it lead up to a little park, noisy from the traffic but enclosed by trees. A forlorn bubbler and a plastic ride-on horse are striped by the long shadows cast by the branches. I sit on the bench beside the horse, facing Golf NSW, imagining how all the office mugs would be novelty mugs featuring golf jokes, of the kind I usually skim my eyes over immediately when I see them in the op shop.
Back down beside the highway I continue walking, past a couple of houses high up above the level of the road, and then more factories. On the sheepskin upholstery business the painted signs are fading. Whenever I pass by I look for this building, as if it has something to reveal to me. The sun has bleached its signage to the point where the lettering and cartoon boots and car seats have taken on an abstract quality, their red and yellow outlines making awkward shapes against their backgrounds. On the roll-a-door is a giant painted 78 like two stray numbers from a lettering book, black with yellow drop-shadows. A real estate sign announces the building to have been leased, but it has been that way for months, now.
Across the road, cars surge up out from the motorway tunnel before stopping at the lights. The sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, turning the light from dull to bright, like it can’t decide which is the right mood. I’ve checked the news on my phone by now and I know lockdown’s been declared, starting in four hours’ time. I start back down the hill on the other side, looking over it all again – sheepskin warehouse, the high-set houses, the golf compound. At the base of the hill I stand waiting for the lights to change, standing by a recently-set panel of concrete, paler than the others. Written into it: Bidjigal Land, this place.
One day late last year I was travelling along Parramatta Road, looking out the window as the bus moved slowly towards the city. My eyes travelled over the shopfronts like I was reading a text I knew by heart. But this time there was a piece missing: a shop had recently been demolished, exposing the side wall of the neighbouring building. The bus accelerated, following the green traffic light up ahead, and as it drove past the gap I caught sight of a ghost sign on the wall. The bus was moving fast, but I managed to read one of the words, LAV… Lavatories?
Indeed this was correct. The next day I returned on foot and peered through the hoardings to read it properly. In plain black lettering it read, through the distortion of the mortar and grime: Lavatories, Hearth and Verandah Tiles. Then: Grates, gasfittings &c. Terms Cash.
It wasn’t the most spectacular ghost sign, but it was an old one as such signs go. In the early 1890s the Steam Marble Works on Parramatta Road in Annandale, near Johnston Street, had sold these tiles, grates and gasfittings. The works had been run by a partnership, two men with the Dickensian names of Moodie and Creak. Almost as soon as I found this out, I read a further newspaper article that described how the marble works had been destroyed by a fire in 1894, drawing that part of their story swiftly to a close.
A few months later there was another Parramatta Road demolition nearby, down the hill from the Lavatories sign, towards Johnston’s Creek. On the first day I noticed it, half of it had been revealed.
Then soon, more.
I recognised the slogan, ‘easy starting, sweet running, more miles’, as I’d read it on another ghost sign some years before, on New Canterbury Road in Hurlstone Park, for another product of the Vacuum Oil Company, this one named Benzine. Both were from the 1920s, when names like Benzine and Plume would have signified a new technological era, rather than environmental damage.
A century on, cars continue on these busy roads. Buildings are demolished and new ones are built, and sometimes, in between, these messages are briefly revealed. I keep a good lookout for them.
I first came to know the Olympia Milk Bar in the late 1990s. Then it seemed a relic of the past that could surely not be around for much longer. Of all the rundown shops on Parramatta Road, of which there were then many, it was the oldest, and made the least concessions to the present day. It had remained essentially unchanged for generations, retaining the same facade and interior it had opened with in 1939. Its most recent changes were the 1970s and 80s chocolate and soft drink advertisements that decorated the walls. I remembered the slogans from the tv ads of my childhood – ‘get a hole lot more out of life’ with Life Savers, and ‘dying for a Solo’ with a photograph of a crocodile, from an ad campaign that had cast Solo fizzy lemon drink as the beverage choice of the rugged.
But I noticed these details later. For a good while I wasn’t brave enough to enter the Olympia. I just peered inside from the doorway. Through the gloom I could see rows of empty chocolate boxes on the shelves behind a high counter, and a blackened neon sign on the back wall, offering Late Suppers. I sometimes caught sight of the proprietor, an elderly man who wore a white apron, standing at the front window, watching the road. The milk bar had few customers but was well known, and rumours about it circulated as people compared stories of their visits. Worried I miss my chance I soon mustered up the courage, and went in with a friend for what would be the first of many visits for tea.
(First visit to the Olympia Milk Bar, c.1999)
On Parramatta Road the traffic surges on, the daily rush of it to and from the city, but inside the Olympia milk bar, time had a different quality. When I stepped inside, the first time and ever-after, I felt the shift into its particular bubble of memory. Sitting at one of the linoleum-topped tables, drinking tea brewed in an aluminium teapot, I looked out at the flare of light of the entrance, like the mouth of a cave, beyond which the cars moved relentlessly. Sometimes the traffic lights would stop the flow for a few seconds, and there’d be a spell of quiet. In these intervals sensed the space of the Olympia around me, the empty rooms above and behind the cafe, and how this was the proprietor’s world, one that was both long ago, and now.
(Working on the manuscript of Mirror Sydney in the Olympia, 2017)
Since those times, much has been written about the Olympia. It has been the subject of stories, news reports, radio shows, Facebook groups, blog posts, and artworks. It has become iconic, the city’s archetypal anachronistic business, an identity something at odds with the very private proprietor, Nick Fotiou, who has been reticent to talk about his life or the history of the milk bar, or to accept help with repairs to the increasingly more dilapidated building.
Until 2019, when the Olympia was closed by the council due to the building being ruled as unsafe, it was reliably open every day, often until late in the night. I looked for it without fail every time I travelled along Parramatta Road. After first visiting in the 1990s and thinking it would surely not be there much longer, it has been surprisingly persistent, so much so its closure was met with a sense of disbelief. The door has since remained shut but with was the same view through glass storefront into the dimly-lit interior, inside which I could see Mr Fotiou sitting at the desk at the back of the cafe.
Then, last week, the door and the windows were boarded up, and the street sign removed. The news came through that Mr Fotiou is now living in a nursing home, and it’s uncertain what might be preserved of the Olympia. For now I imagine it all still there, behind the boards, all the objects in their familiar arrangements, waiting in the dark.