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.
In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.
At the end of the week, Surry Hills Shopping Village will cease trading, closing for good on the 10th January. Advertisements for the apartments to be built on the site are draped over the facade, across the building which follows the curve of the corner of Cleveland and Baptist streets. The banners announce that the ‘residences’ are available for purchase, even though construction of them is yet to begin, and beside this announcement the image of a woman in an evening dress promises impending, incongruous luxury.
Below the banners is the familiar former bank building with its striped pillars, and two columns flanking a door with a neon sign above it, for Noodle Star restaurant. Many of the businesses in the shopping centre have already left, but Noodle Star will trade to the end. Every table inside it occupied, and others wait on the inside steps for their takeaway, in the glowing yellow light of the advertisement for laksa that hangs in the entrance as a welcome. Along the side wall are further photographs of the available dishes, an honest gallery of noodles and dumplings.
The mall was built in 1981 on a former factory site, and since then has retained the same functional atmosphere, it main enticement its utility, promising nothing more than a collection of useful shops collected together under the same roof. When it opened it was called Redfern Mall, but in 1992 changed its name, to Surry Hills Shopping Village, the business owners citing the fact that it was closer to the Surry Hills shopping strip on Crown Street than the Redfern shops near the train station. Later other, meaner, names were given to it, suggesting a reputation of crime and vice. But its most abiding story has to be that for four decades it has performed the task of being an ordinary shopping centre. Some locals have shopped there regularly for that whole time, buying groceries, posting letters, visiting the newsagent, buying bread rolls.
Standing in the carpark to take this photo, I remembered my favourite thing about the Surry Hills mall: how the carpark behind the centre follows the incline of the land, and how the expanse of parking spaces forms a breathing space in this dense part of the inner city. I like how the centre spreads out across its corner lot, not making more of the space than it needs to, and that it is surrounded by eucalypts and casuarinas trees. Inside, I like its easy-listening radio soundtrack that gives it the atmosphere of a wan 70s nightclub, playing Band of Gold by Freda Payne, Sweet Sweet Love – Russell Morris and other such long-ago hits, as it does today in its last days, and as it did in the busier times of its past.
This year I have been a Visiting Writer with the Sydney Review of Books at the State Library of NSW, although, earlier in the year, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to visit in person this year at all. In late March lockdown measures were put in place and the library was closed. But after a few months, as Covid case-numbers fell and the situation improved, the library re-opened and I masked up and ventured into the reading room.
I based my research around Sydney department stores, and particularly David Jones, inspired by the novel The Women in Black by Madeleine St John. I’d read this novel again during the lockdown months and it gave me cause to reflect on the significance of department stores within the city, as part of people’s everyday and working lives.
You can read ‘In the Catalogue‘, the essay I wrote on department store archives and The Women in Black, at the Sydney Review of Books. To write it I made weekly trips to the library, spending days in the reading room looking through catalogues and ephemera. While I was in the city I also went to visit David Jones, following the trails of my memory.
One of my strongest childhood memories is visiting David Jones with my mother, travelling into the the city on the train and walking through a labyrinth of arcades from Town Hall station, to arrive at the Elizabeth Street store. In the shoe department I’d look out the window, over the treetops of Hyde Park, and feel a transformed sense of perspective on the city.
I was entranced by the wide, dark mass of the fig trees, and the arches of the cathedral beyond (it had no spires in those days, as these were added in 2000). It was my first memory of seeing the city as a place that could hold many different areas and moods at once and a foundational one for the work I would go on to do. There is still so much to go in search of.
The long, straight stretch of Gardeners Road that runs through Rosebery has houses on one side and shops on the other. Mid-way along the shopping strip is a building much grander in scale than the rest, though now dilapidated: a former cinema with a wide, neo-classical facade. The cinema was called the Marina for most of the time it was operating, but I think of the building as Videomania, after the vertical sign that hangs from the roof, from its latter days as a video store.
Every time I approach Videomania I expect it to have been demolished, and while it does change in minor ways – a mural painted down the side of it in the mid-2010s, and more recently, the front awning removed – it marks the ebb of the years with its rust and peeling paint, resistant so far to redevelopment, though surely not for too much longer. Every few years I stop to take a photo of it, thinking it will be the last one.
This time when I stop I make sure to inspect it closely. On the facade the seashell rendering makes up part of a scuffed canvas, along with bill posters ripped back to reveal their previous layers, and the recessed remains of the marquee above the entrance. Down the side of the building, by the fading spraypainted pink panther emerging from the green snarl of a tag, is a side door with a KEEP OUT notice on it. The door is padlocked but there’s a wide enough hole where a chain’s been threaded through for me to look inside to the cavernous interior. The seats are gone but otherwise its reasonably intact: the stage with its long curtain pulled back, the proscenium arch, the red-painted ceiling. The flutter and coo of pigeons resounds from within. At the far end are signs from its video store days, an arrow pointing to the Greek movies section, the rates for hiring new releases and weeklies.
Gardeners Road is something of a time capsule, from the days before shopping malls and big box retailers. Despite the number of empty stores, their attrition no doubt hastened by the pandemic, there are some that have been there for decades. One such business is Mr Yawn’s mattress shop, which has plastic-wrapped mattresses lashed to the front doors and various versions of its mattress mascot on display.
For many years, passing by Mr Yawn’s, I had wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then it came to me: I remembered the blue, yawning mattress with outstretched arms from the frequent airings of tv ads for Mr Yawn that broadcast when I was a teenager. In them Mr Yawn – embodied by a person wearing a mattress with a yawning face as a costume – would describe the features and specials in a tone of somnolent excitement. The ads usually featured Mr Yawn on the footpath outside the store on Gardeners Road frantically waving his arms to attract attention.
There has been no such media exposure for Giacco’s Shoe Repairs, which trades in an intriguing combination of giant amethyst geodes and shoelaces. When I pass by it is closed, but I peer in through the door at the rows of geodes that flank the counter, trying to figure out the connection between shoe repair and crystals. I’m not saying there needs to be one. When I lived beside Parramatta Road in the 1990s I’d often go by a shop with a sign for “tobacconist and jeanery”, which seemed like an invitation to imagine other such unlikely combinations.
At the western end of the shops is Sam’s MFC supermarket, with a wall of cans of olive oil in the window, priced with a flutter of taped-on paper labels. Inside the smell of olives and spices encloses me, aromatic and comforting, and I browse amid the vats of olives, dry goods and massive bags of spices for a while, wondering if I would manage to consume 6kg of cinnamon even across my whole lifetime.
Further along the street I look in on the Evergreen Spot milk bar, with its melamine booth seats and perspex menu board, sizzle from the fryers, and ‘cash only’ notices in prominent positions.
Usually I only see the exteriors of these places, from the windows of a car or a bus, on my way east or west. This section of the road is so straight and flat that it has the effect of a roll of film or a series of pages, and my attention moves smoothly from one shop or house to the next. Sometimes I look out at the shop side, other times the house side. The houses are on the north side of the street, bungalows on wide blocks with bore water signs in their gardens, a reminder of the flows of groundwater that underlie this land, as water drains towards Kamay to the south.
If it’s night when I’m making this journey it’s hard to discern much in the dark, but I look for Arida’s International Fruit Market, which is the only shop beside the takeaways that stays open late. It’s like a lamp lighting up the nighttime, glowing with fluorescent light and the displays of fruit and vegetables in the interior.
But today as I walk along Gardeners Road it’s bright with spring sunlight, and I can see all of the details clearly.
One day around 2002 I was at Central station and, as I walked down the stairs from one of the platforms to the concourse below, I noticed that a panel above the stairwell had been removed, exposing the wall and the wiring, and an advertisement from decades before. Four faces grinning with big, wide-mouthed smiles, with their hands upheld in gestures of abandon, broadcasted a message in two speech bubbles: ‘Come on Along. We’re a Billion Dollars Strong’. I had my camera with me – a 35mm film camera in those days – and made sure to take a photo before it was covered over again.
There was something unsettling about the fact these faces had been lurking behind the wall for so long. Perhaps it was just the spooky effect of the blacked-out teeth, the holes punched through for the wires, and the vigour of their optimism, now obsolete. Come along – to where? On what journey had they been taking their billion dollars?
Soon after, once the work was completed, the ad was again hidden again behind a panel. For a while I thought about them underneath it, and then from time to time something would set off the slogan in my head or the image of the ad would come back up in my memory, as I’d done some writing about it at the time in a zine, accompanied by the photograph I had taken.
I’d wondered what the ad had been for, and some years later found the answer when I was looking through a box of photographs of 1970s and 80s buses at a secondhand store. Back then in the pre-digital era of photography some of the only people regularly taking photos of city streets were bus enthusiasts, and their photographs can sometimes inadvertently contain useful urban historical details.
NSW Permanent Building Society had been a large home loan and insurance firm that, in the 1980s, changed to become the Advance Bank, which then later merged with St George. This ad campaign predated these changes: on the back of the bus photograph was the date, March 1979. Anyone watching commercial television in that year would have seen these characters in action to the tune of ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’, which had been reworded with a financial-institution twist.
At the end of my zine story about the uncovered Central station ad in 2002 I had written how behind the new, fresh wall built in front of it, the ad would remain there, message hidden, until the next time that part of the station was refurbished.
It was as if I knew I would see it again.
Almost twenty years later works for the Sydney Metro at Central Station have required the removal of certain ceiling panels above the stairwells.
Now when I saw them I felt as if some old friends had reappeared, somewhat worse for wear, still wearing the same outfits and with the same expressions as they had farewelled me with almost 20 years before. Despite the pipes and the wires and all their years in hiding, their invitation remains.
Later I compared the photographs, one taken in 2002, the other that afternoon, wondering if it was indeed the same ad I had seen all those years ago. I had remembered it being at the other end of the station, but eighteen years is a long interval to remember the exact location of a hidden sign. But in my earlier photo, when I examined the holes punched for the wires, and the peeled off section of the woman’s face underneath the claim about the billion dollars, they did indeed seem to be different versions of the same ad. The other one is still hidden, for now. Keep an eye out when in Central station: they could be just there, behind any wall.
Thanks to Demetrius Romeo for alerting me to their reappearance.
When I first saw it on the map I thought I’d misread it: Grand Flaneur Beach. The beach was on the shore of the lake at the edge of Chipping Norton, the location marked with a green pin with a beach umbrella inside it. It seemed unlikely for a number of reasons, firstly for being a beach far from the ocean, and secondly being named “flâneur” (but without its circumflex accent hat over the ‘a’) a word which brings to mind images of 19th-century Parisian dandies rather than the south western suburbs of Sydney. A flâneur is an urban stroller, someone with no particular place to be, for whom just being out observing is a full occupation. What kind of beach would a flâneur – a grand one at that – give their name to?
The place known as Chipping Norton is an area of land enclosed by Tucoerah/ Georges River, the river that divides Dharug land to the north of the waterway, from Dharawal land to the south. The river curves around, turning back on itself, and at the turn it swells out into a lake, inside which are a number of small islands. The river has flowed for thousands of years, but the lake is only a few decades old. In the mid-twentieth century, the land was extensively mined for sand, and by the 1970s resembled a “bomb-blasted” scene, scarred by the disused pits of the sand mines. A plan was drawn up to flood the area, and transform it to what the Minister for Public Works in 1987 decreed would be “an aquatic wonderland of the west”.
This wonderland was quiet in winter. It was the end of June when I visited, a time when the days were cold and short, leading up to the shortest day of the year. The city was waking up a little from the first wave of the pandemic and a few people were out, but those who were kept their distance from each other. I turned off from the streets of sensible brick suburban houses and into the parkland. Grand Flaneur Beach is marked by a plain, solid road-sign, pegged into the ground on a small clearing amid the lawn that leads down to the lake.
I walked down to the water’s edge, to the strip of sand churned by footprints. I’d read that sometimes bull sharks swim up into the lake to breed, and I imagined I might see a fin above the water, gliding along, although this is a rare event, and there were only ducks to be seen on the surface on this afternoon. The lake was calm, a plain, but peaceful place to be. I sat on the lawn looking over it, pouring out a cup of tea from a thermos. As I put a slice of the lemon cake I’d brought with me onto a plate I heard an unfamiliar sound, and looked up.
The buzz overhead was a light plane flying over, after having taken off from the nearby Bankstown Airport. It had been a while since I’d noticed a plane, it being months into the travel bans, and I sat and watched the plane progress over the blue canvas of the sky until my view of it was blocked by the trees. As I watched the plane, a myna bird hopped up and started to peck at the cake, bold with the experience of many Grand Flaneur Beach picnics.
Why was the beach called this? There was nothing I could detect that solved the mystery. Who was the grand flâneur? Was it me? As much as I liked to think so, the truth was otherwise.
Grand Flaneur was a horse. A champion stallion, winner of all the major races, including the Melbourne Cup, and unbeaten upon his retirement from racing in 1881. Grand Flaneur was owned by the politician and horse-racing-enthusiast William Long, who established racing stables here, and gave the place its colonial name of Chipping Norton. The stables and racecourse that still operate at Warwick Farm had their beginnings in those days. William Long loved horses and horse-racing, but apparently he did not much like women, and it is said that he didn’t even allow women to come onto this Chipping Norton property that he held by the river.
But, well, there I was. Sitting by the side of an artificial lake, by a beach that is named after a racehorse. I was thinking about being a flâneur, about walking and observing, as the bird pecked at my cake, and another plane buzzed over above. The plane brought me back to thoughts of the pandemic and all that had changed in the months preceding me coming there. As the fear and the changes had taken hold people had asked me how this time would affect my investigations of Sydney. I wondered this too, and I still do. But I know that I’m attracted to quiet, unusual, and underpopulated places, the kind that persist despite the city changing around them, or that are hidden in plain sight, yet are not often given attention. These are the places I go in search of, and even in difficult, restricted times, they are to be found.