Living Postcard

The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.

I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.

I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.

Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 1958

If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without charm. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.

The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.

I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.

At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.

Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.

The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.

Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.

Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing. 

***

Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.

 

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Sydney Trades Hall

At the edge of Chinatown is the Sydney Trades Hall, a Victorian-era office building, four storeys high, with an octagonal tower jutting from the corner like a lantern. When it opened in 1895, this area was near the wharves, railyards, and industrial areas on the city’s fringe, areas that employed many of the workers who belonged to the trade unions who had offices inside the building.

On the main staircase there’s a list of the union offices that once were found within Trades Hall. It’s an index of the city’s past occupations, among them bread carters, sailmakers, glass bottle makers, food preservers, Pyrmont Sugar Workers, milk and ice carters. The building would have been a lively place, with all of these offices, a literary institute library, and nightly social activities, concerts and dances and meetings.

Now the building is part-offices, part-museum, after being refurbished in the 2000s. I’ve come on a tour as part of Sydney Open, the annual weekend on which buildings of historical and architectural interest are open to the public. On the ground floor I walk in past an old, wooden elevator with a banner for the Lift Attendant union displayed inside it. There are other such banners hanging in the nearby hallway, for cleaners and for watchmen, and a framed painted list of offices, with a delicate painted hand pointing upstairs.

The building houses objects related to its history: the signs that once hung in the hallways, the banners that unions used in marches and processions, and the certificates and banners used by the unions to signify or reward membership. The large painted banners are ornate and symbolic, decorated with gold leaf.

Their painter was Edgar Whitbread, who worked for decades, well into his 70s, at a small studio in the glass-domed Victoria Arcade. His name can be seen printed modestly at the base of these banners, which were once used in the processions and demonstrations that would bring thousands of people onto the city’s streets. Their detail and meticulous craftsmanship are surprising to the contemporary eye, and we can imagine them held aloft, as the workers they represented marched with them.

It was in the 1960s, the heritage officer leading the tour tells us, when the building was under threat of demolition, that thought was given to whether the banners should be preserved. That they were owes much to the Trades Hall secretary, Lorna Morrison, who advocated for their restoration. The banner had been stored in a part of the building that was at the time opened up as a walkway between the original building and the new Labour Council building behind it, a grey office block with painted advertisements for the on-site broadcaster, 2KY radio, on it.

Other objects on display, he said, were found piled up in the basement during the refurbishment in the 2000s. These objects now tell the story of the building, but also of the world of work, and how Sydney’s workers have shaped the city.


Visit Sydney

These rainy grey October days have seen me looking through my papers, trying to arrange them in some sort of system. I’m a haphazard archivist. The activity of sorting rarely leads to anything but me surrounded by books and papers, sensing how each one resonates with its own story, so it’s impossible to discard any, and easy to become sidetracked rather than instilling order.

Today I’ve spent the day sorting the Sydney Scraps category, which is an unruly mixture of pamphlets, guidebooks, photos, postcards, and miscellaneous ephemera. They resemble the bundles of papers one returns with after an international holiday, the importance of each scrap heightened by its dislocation from everyday life. In this case, it’s a time-traveller’s dossier, each scrap accrued from a visit to a Sydney of the past.

First let’s visit Sydney of the late-1950s, via a pamphlet produced by the prolific New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau. Such pamphlets were intended to be functional documents that informed the visitor to the city of the potential activities and experiences to be had during their visit. They usually made an attempt to describe the city’s character and atmosphere, as well as create a sense of excitement and anticipation. This combination can lead the time traveller into some unexpected terrain.

What expectations does this view of the city’s business district create, with this sensible Martin Place streetscape? They may not be the adjectives offered within:

By far my favourite part of this pamphlet is its itinerary for ‘8 Fascinating Days in Sydney’. It is not the suggested activities, so much as the breathless way in which they are described that makes me wonder: was the 1950s really a time when people expressed their frustration at leaving the camera at home by “whipping the cat”, when they had ventured out on a “memorable junket”? As for “penetrating the blue fjord of Middle Harbour”, and “lofty forest clad mountains come kneeling to the very edge of the Pacific”… I have spent a good while trying to imagine who might have written the copy for this brochure and believe them to have been an avid reader of romance novels.

In 1970 the New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau has a more down-to-earth copywriter, although the brochure cover image is the opposite, revelling in the view from Australia Square as diners enjoy the “smorgasboard brunch” in the foreground. As well as a lovingly-rendered illustration of the Kings Cross Village Centre, there is a chart of costs which has the time traveller excited at the 18c middies that await.

The New South Wales Government Tourist Bureau also produced weekly guides in the late 60s/early 70s, with listings of shops, restaurants and entertainments. In the introduction to the 15th-21st June 1967 issue, Lord Mayor John Armstrong praised the city’s unique features, including its “adequate facilities for sporting activities”. No risk of hyperbole there.

My main attraction to guides of this nature is that they enable me to go shopping in the past.

The forlorn-looking tiger, please. The guide also includes what is now a ghost tour of Sydney’s arcades: only the Strand remains.

Visitors would have read these pamphlets and those like them, have laid back in their hotel beds reading over the listings of coffee spots and theatre restaurants, have crushed them into handbags and into suitcases as they packed to go home again, some keeping them as souvenirs of their time in the city. I often wonder by what sequence of events they have made it into my possession. There are rarely any clues to know what the travellers who kept these brochures thought of the city, but in one case, I know.

This 1920s guide to Sydney used a sketch of the then not-yet-completed Harbour Bridge for the cover. It’s an interesting little book, given to me by my friend DL, and has delicate, tissue-paper fold-out maps that show the city streets, ferry routes and suburban shires. It really warrants a post of its own, but for now, it answers the question of what at least one Sydney visitor thought of the city.

On the first page, in pencil, the name F.M. Smith is written, with the date, 22/2/33. The Harbour Bridge was complete by then, but perhaps that wasn’t quite enough to win over some visitors. The only other annotation in the book is on the page set aside for the ‘Visitor’s Diary’. What was F.M. Smith’s impression of Sydney?

 

 


Our Berta’s Corner

As Rocky Point Road continues on to the bridge over the Georges River, a side road leads off to the left, following the shoreline of the bay, into the suburb of Sans Souci. Red-brick apartment buildings give way to vacant lots with sandy soil showing through underneath the grass. Then a row of houses begins in the contemporary mansion/fortress style, monoliths painted grey or beige.

A few blocks along, on a corner, there’s a different kind of house, one that stands out in a blaze of colour. The roof of the fibro cottage here has the tiles painted yellow, blue and green, so it looks like a patchwork or a crochet blanket. It’s bright as a toy among the serious houses that surround it.

This house has long been a San Souci landmark. Local news reports have told the story of its colourful roof, painted by John Hall as a tribute to his wife Berta, who died in 1997. The tiles, he said, could “be seen from heaven so Berta can look down and see how much I love her”.

Over the last few weeks, the house and this story have been in the news again, for now John has passed away and the house is for sale. A placard for the auction is pegged into the ground out the front, beside the letterbox and the sign with the hand-painted legend, “Our Berta’s Corner”, at the corner of the fence. The house is vacant, empty, its curtains pulled back from the windows. An open eye, it watches over the flat waters of the bay.

The notice for the auction stops people in their tracks. Walkers on the path pause to read it. Drivers slow their cars as they pass by. The impending sale has made the house an available place for people to sow their dreams. I look past the real estate sign to the geraniums and agapanthus planted in the garden, to the lucky horseshoe nailed to the carport, and the wooden weathervane on top of the backyard granny-flat, in the shape of a duck, the house number, 22, painted on its tail. Even without knowing the story of John and Berta Hall, its details are of a house that has been lived in with love.

I turn my attention back to the real estate sign, which has as its image an aerial photograph of the corner, with a red rectangle drawn around the lot, to show potential purchasers the size of the land. The effect is surely unintended, but it also shows what John Hall had for decades imagined, his Berta looking down from above, seeing the patchwork roof, and knowing that she was loved and remembered.

 

Thanks to Andrew C. for sending the link to the newspaper story.


Gould’s Book Arcade

When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.

A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.

The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.

Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.

In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).

During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.


The Chiswick Arches

By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.

But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.

The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.

They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.

There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.

When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.

The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.

Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.

On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10). 

The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.

I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.


The Ming On Building

Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.


In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.

For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.

The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.

The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat, but therein lies its charm, and people’s sense of delight and connection. It’s a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.

Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.