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.
Heading north along Burwood Road I walk by house after house. Some are low, brick Federation-style houses, the kind that have wooden gables and front porches, although I see no one sitting outside on this weekday late afternoon. There’s still an hour or more of the work-day to go, but daylight has already started to fade from the sky, and the air has turned chill.
So I keep moving, past the roadside trees that have been cut into weird shapes to avoid the electricity wires, until I reach a curve in the road. Following it around I see up ahead that the factory I was looking for has all of a sudden become visible. Its tall metal chimney rises up from the central building, a high, wide block with long walls made of opaque glass, bracketed by two brick walls on each side like bookends. The view of the factory shifts the scale from domestic to industrial, although like the houses the factory is surrounded by gardens, which softens somewhat, the hard appearance of the industrial buildings.
Around the factory are landscaped grounds with tall, spreading conifers, and garden beds planted with clusters of agapanthus. I look in through the fence and read the text on a sign beside the driveway that runs down along the office building closest to the street: Green Bean Deliveries: Please report to Bean Storeman immediately upon arrival. On the side of the central factory building is another clue to the goods produced inside: a huge letter B, white against the bricks, two-storeys high. Within the top loop of the B is a tea leaf, and within the lower one, a coffee bean.
The Bushells factory began to operate here in the late 1950s, after moving their roasting and blending operations from Harrington Street in The Rocks, to this larger site further west in Concord. Bushells was the first Australian tea company, and was strongly established by the early 20th century. They were prolific advertisers, with ads being painted on the exterior walls of corner stores across the country, leading to there now being many Bushells ghost signs out there for the finding. In Canterbury Road in Belmore is one such sign, with a traffic-related message: “STOP for Bushells, Go refreshed”. Underneath this, behind the slim trunks of casuarina trees, is a carefully-painted box of the signature Blue Label blend.
The factory is on Wangal country, on the south side of the harbour, as the river moves west towards Parramatta. The peninsula had, before colonial intervention, been woodland on the higher ground with mangroves by the water’s edge. The colonial claims on the land saw that this area, as with much of the swampland that had made up the harbour foreshores, was filled in for the purposes of industry. Beginning in the 1920s, it had taken 12 years of depositing rubble here to “fill the hungry swamp”.
Now instead of the hungry swamp is a golf course and a park, and estates of apartments and townhouses that have replaced the timber mill and the metalworks that had also once operated near by the water. But of all the structures here, the Bushells factory dominates the headland, a symbol of colonialism both in the immediate sense of the changes to this land, and in the wider history of tea as a commodity.
Turning in through the entrance to the golf course I follow the path that runs along its edge, by the tall wire fence of the factory site. An earthy smell of coffee drifts over, although the factory’s operations are much reduced, ahead of its imminent closure. A residential development is planned for it in the near future, taking advantage of its waterside position, part of the general move towards deindustrialisation of this area.
As the sun moves towards the horizon the sky turns golden, and its glow is reflected in the wide glass wall of the central factory building. From where I’m standing at the edge of the golf course, the building has the look of a giant radio set, its chimney like an aerial. Or a giant juice carton, with the chimney the straw. I look through the tall wire fence at it, making up analogies, as steam billows up from the side of the main hall, white puffs that drift upwards and dissipate.
Then I turn towards the harbour. The water in the bay is flat and glassy, shining with afternoon light, as if it is a bowl which swirls the colours of the sunset inside it. Sky and water seem a perfect mirror of each other, and for a moment, all other details recede.
This month, a special announcement: it’s the launch of the Mirror Sydney podcast, a collaboration between me and the audio producer and musician Lia Tsamoglou. You can listen to the first series, of six episodes, at the Mirror Sydney Podcast website, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or Spotify, or Google Podcasts as well as other podcast apps.
We started working on the podcast in earnest at the start of this year, with the bushfire smoke thick in the air, and put the finishing touches to it in the intense period of pandemic lockdown in March and April, as changes swirled around us, and the city went quiet. Recording the episodes became a way to travel beyond the confines of home and sink into the details of these places, some of them favourite and familiar, others places new to me. They were lots of fun to make! Lia did a magic job of transforming Mirror Sydney into audio and I hope you enjoy listening to them.
It is busy in Marrickville, even now with the lockdown measures in operation. On Illawarra Road it seems little different to other Saturdays, although people are wearing face-masks and trying to keep as much distance from each other as the pavement will allow, and there’s an undercurrent of tension that’s the mood of these pandemic times. However there is one Marrickville character who has remained as relaxed as ever.
Leaning back in her hammock, between two steel palm trees, the Banana Joes banana has the same starry-eyed look of unconcern that she has worn for decades, although she has, in recent years, lost the cocktail glass she used to hold aloft. Rain or shine she leans back, staring up into the sky, on her own tropical island of the awning.
The reclining banana is the mascot of Banana Joes, the independent supermarket that has, since 1984, traded from this shop on Illawarra Road. It’s a family business, run by Joe Khouri, and started out as a fruit market chain, with a number of Sydney suburban stores in Ashfield, St Peters and Campsie. It was fairly short-lived as a chain, and the focus has long been the Marrickville store.
I’d heard rumours that it was closing, but nothing seemed to happen for a while, until the recent announcement that the Easter weekend will be the store’s last. Among the signs on the door and the posters of weekly specials on pickles and giant beans, is a green Woolworths notice, announcing that a “fresh new store is coming soon”, news that no one would be greeting with much enthusiasm. For Banana Joes is a Marrickville shopping landmark, known for its fresh food, capacious canvas shopping bags, slow lift, and reclining steel banana. Just saying its name made going to the supermarket sound interesting.
From the rooftop carpark there’s a view out over Marrickville. I’m not the only person who is looking out over it: a man and his small daughter are standing at the corner, peering down, pointing out familiar places from a new aspect. Maybe this is something they often do, or maybe, in these days of isolation, when one of the few sanctioned reasons for going outside is to shop, any safe opportunity for amusement is worth taking.
Between the carpark and the store an old, slow lift conveys the shoppers who are patient enough to wait for it. Inside the metal interior of the lift posters of the weekly specials are displayed in frames on the wall. This gives it something of the look of a miniature art gallery, inviting scrutiny of the loaves of bread or cans of four-bean-mix or ground coffee that are featured inside. For a time, some years ago, there had been written in black marker on the door the words “smoocher’s lift”: it is obviously special to many people in different ways.
On its last weekend the shelves in Banana Joes are a little barer than usual, but the community noticeboard is still cluttered with the usual leaflets for services like the continental philosophy group, knife-sharpening, and meditation courses. Beside it is a crate inside which are stacked empty fruit cartons printed with mascots like top-hat-wearing avocadoes and smiling oranges. People queue up in distanced lines, waiting to buy their last round of Banana Joes groceries.
I’ll miss Banana Joes, but at least the word is that the banana on the awning is set to remain. In years to come it will confuse newcomers to Marrickville, who might wonder at its significance. But the locals will know, and remember.
As I travel around the city and the suburbs there are particular details that I make a habit of looking for. They tend to fall into categories that will be familiar to regular Mirror Sydney readers, like ghost signs, interesting trees, architectural oddities, shops with cluttered interiors, and vacant lots. In this way I navigate, from detail to detail, checking on what’s changed in between now and the last time I passed by. Another level of detail occurs with seasonal changes – it’s late February now, so the crepe myrtles are out, with their blossoms of various pinks, and then as the cooler weather starts, the purple tibouchinas will bloom.
There’s another layer of detail in the daily movements that occur, sometimes regularly, sometimes not, like the flocks of cockatoos or corellas that sweep overhead or gather to roost on the powerlines, or the mournful song of the icecream truck that trundles up my street in the afternoons. It has a faded painting of a knight on the side and when I see it elsewhere in the city it’s with a feeling of recognition like spotting a friend in a crowd. There are a few other distinctive trucks I see around that I feel a similar kinship to – Extreme Piano Removals is one, and the plumber’s van with the painting of the dolphin leaping out of a toilet on the side is another.
My favourite trucks to spot, though, are tofu trucks. There are two in particular that I often see around. The Evergreen truck is pale green and has pictures of the tofu products it delivers on the sides, a lineup of bottles of soy milk and blocks of firm or silken tofu. Fortune has illustrations of the tofu making process on the back door of the truck, and on the side, an advertisement for the Triangular Tofu Puff.
As is generally the case with noticing any detail, once I started paying attention to the tofu trucks, I began to see them quite often, although never often enough for me to predict when I would cross paths with one. I particularly like seeing Fortune; it seems a lucky sign.
The reason for my particular attraction to the tofu trucks dawned on me one day when I was driving along behind the Evergreen truck. It had turned out in front of me on the Campsie bypass and as I followed it, considering the tofu dishes pictured on the back, I I recognised a similarity between a block of tofu and the blocky, square shape of the truck. Surely this was unintentional: a small refrigerated truck has a high, square shape, and there are plenty of such trucks on the roads, used to convey all manner of goods. Now though, every time a tofu truck crosses my path, there is something freshly pleasing about registering this coincidence.
A roll-call of western-line train stations comes over the station announcement: Lidcombe, Auburn, Clyde, Granville. The pace of the list is familiar, with one-syllable Clyde a pause between the longer names before and after it. I’ve been through Clyde station many a time but don’t know that I’ve ever actually alighted there. I’ve had little reason to visit this small industrial suburb between Granville and Auburn, its boundaries the Duck River to one side, and the railway line to Carlingford on the other.
It is this Carlingford railway line that I have come to make a journey on, before it closes on January 5h. It’s Sydney’s least-used line, running on a single track for most of the way, north through the industrial and then suburban landscape. I know it best from the level crossing that brings Parramatta Road to a stop every half hour, as the alarms sound out, the gates come down, and the traffic waits for the train to go by.
No one lives in Clyde. It is entirely made up of factories and warehouses, its streets lined with granite and marble businesses, smash repairers, and mechanics. Turn out onto Parramatta Road and there’s a large factory with a long, grey wall that up until recently was a Mitsubishi distribution centre, but now is an auction house. I’d often noticed this long grey factory wall, devoid of doorways or windows, and in front of it, an expanse of lawn. It looked as if it was waiting for something. Well, something arrived.
I had never considered the scenario of watching the Parramatta Road traffic go by from the cockpit of a plane. The aircraft is marooned in the middle of the lawn, its engines stripped out and windows blocked off by real-estate signs. I climb inside it. The seats are gone from the cockpit but the control panel is still mostly intact, and I flick some of the switches as I watch the traffic, peering out through the grimy window. Behind me is a brown vinyl folding screen with a filigree pattern, the kind that I can better imagine in a 1970s rumpus room, but here separates the cockpit from the cabin.
To return to the station I pass the bottle recycling centre with its sour stink, and then turn to follow the river along a pathway underneath the casuarina trees. Their Gadigal name is guman, these trees with rough bark and thin, dark green-grey foliage. Underfoot there is a thick, dry mat of their fallen leaves. This area around the waterways had been a forest – and, being a meeting point of rivers, a meeting place for the Dharug clans of the west and east – before the colonists cut down its ironbarks, floating the logs down the creek and then the Parramatta river and into the harbour.
It’s a different kind of forest now, strewn with trash and abandoned tyres in between the trees. It hasn’t rained for many months; there’s a dry, cracking feeling to everything as I walk through, in between the mangroves and the trash heaps. On the other side of the trees is an industrial estate, with piles of wooden pallets and empty parking lots. A man steps off from a forklift and comes up to me with a curious expression, wondering what someone like me, wearing pink heart-shaped sunglasses and a patchwork dress that looks like something Holly Hobbie might have worn, is doing in this grim industrial scene. I say I’m looking for the station, and he points me in the direction of the gate, at the end of a long, shade-less concrete driveway.
The train is waiting at the platform, the departure time ticking down on the indicator board. When it sets out, the track veers off from the main line, following the path of the creek up to Parramatta Road. Here it glides through the level crossing, the scene I previously knew only from the other side, from being in a car behind the gate. To the side of the tracks is the signal box, a hut by the side of the tracks (see Lyndal Irons’ fantastic On Parramatta Road project for a look inside the signal box, and interview with the signal operator).
The train passes under motorway overpasses and the horse-racing track, and the branch line that used to extend to another railway line for the factories that lined the Parramatta River. The stations were named for the factories: Hardies, Goodyear, Cream of Tartar Works and Sandown, and this area of land is still poisoned from these industries, which also included an oil refinery, paint factory, and meatworks. Asbestos was used as landfill at Hardies, and at other factory sites heavy metals have leached into the soil. It is thought to be a promising area for future development.
Soon the scene changes to a row of 1950s houses, fibro and weatherboard with red-tile roofs. The land is steeper, dropping down into a valley beside the train line. To one side the view down below is a suburban patchwork of houses and streets and stretches of bushland. On the other, is a wide stretch of parched, yellow grass, striped with the lines from a lawnmower. Under one tree is a bright orange plastic chair, and I wonder who might sometimes sit there to watch the trains go by.
The track curves around and I can see Carlingford up ahead, the tall apartment buildings around the railway station. When the train stops a few passengers alight: some residents and a few trainspotters, who take photos with the indicator board – still the old, wooden kind, with the stations on wooden pins that can be flipped like abacus beads – and talk to the station attendant. The driver gets out from the cabin and walks down to the other end of the train, to set up for the return journey. A few metres on from the platform is the end of the line, two horizontal beams of wood, marking the end of the tracks.
The railway was first built to Carlingford in 1896 as a private line, then planned to extend to the fruit farms of Dural, although this extension never came to be. The line was bought by the government and has ever-since operated as part of the state rail network. Now in January 2020 it will be closed, to be replaced by light rail. It already feels like an experience from the past, stepping out from the short, four-carriage train at the small platform, having taken the journey from Clyde along the single track of railway, taking just twelve minutes in all.
Carlingford is a place I mostly know from drives my family made through it decades ago, when I was a child. I’d look out for certain details, wondering what they were, knowing that any request to stop to inspect them further would be denied. One of these details was the park beside the highway which featured a pond with three large white figures at the centre of it.
K13, I can now tell you, was a submarine, and the park is a memorial to submarine crews and officers who died during the first and second world wars. The white letters are stark against the brown pond underneath. When I approach it I see there are dozens of tadpoles swimming in it, and dragonflies hovering over the surface, with bright blue and bright red bodies. Everything is so hot and dry and still, and the traffic surges so relentlessly on the highway behind me, that it is a relief to watch the darting movements of the creatures around and within the water.
This part of Sydney is Burramattagal country, and in the distance I can see the place that has been named after it: the newly high-rise skyline of Parramatta. Pennant Hills Road runs along the ridge, and from here there is a view across the low, flat plains of the west and south west. I follow the road further up the hill, as trucks shudder by. The houses I am passing are empty, awaiting demolition. It’s difficult to walk here, and no one else is. The only other person I see is a man in a uniform with a device that looks like a microphone, pointed at the road, recording something on a clipboard.
The other place I remember seeing from the car and being curious about was a feature that appeared around Christmastime: the nativity display outside the Mormon temple. This, like K13, intrigued me as an out-of-the-ordinary detail in the otherwise familiar suburban pattern. I keep walking past the two shopping centres and sure enough, soon see the mannequins of camels and the three wise men, set up underneath a tree in the gardens of the temple. They are as I remember them having been when I saw them from the car as a child, and it is strange to be standing beside them now as an adult, like I am visiting a memory in a dream.
Things have changed in Carlingford since I pondered these details in passing, decades ago, the kinds of changes that have occurred across the suburbs – more apartment buildings, a larger shopping centre, the video store becoming a discount chemist – but in many ways it is much the same. The traffic continues, surging along the highway; the streets of houses lead off from it, down into the valley and the quiet, and the respite of the bushland.
As I sit at Carlingford station, waiting for the train back to Clyde and then the city, I can see across to Carlingford Produce, a store that’s been there as long as the railway has, over 100 years. It sells hardware, garden supplies, pet food, and stock feed, from a sprawling warehouse with a rusty corrugated-iron roof. Behind it are new apartment buildings, grey and white and square. As I wait, a rooster starts crowing from inside the warehouse, although it is mid-afternoon. It calls out once, then again. A moment later, the train appears, pulling in at the station slowly, then stopping at the end of the line.
The air is bitter, the sun red as a traffic light, weak behind the haze. In the afternoons the light comes through the window in panes of weird bright orange. I consider the list of places that I had thought of visiting to write about for this month’s post, but to go outside is to breathe the acrid air and to see a pall of smoke clinging to everything. To feel the dread of the smoke not lifting, to see in my mind’s eye the map of the fires burning down the east coast and the photographs of the fire front and its destruction, and think of those who have had to flee or fight it.
On social media photographs of the red sun are accompanied by messages of dread. When I do go out to do daily tasks I can feel the tension and fatigue at the edges of every interaction. It is surreal to see everyday activities going on amid the white air. As I walk across the Domain there is a group of people playing soccer on the field behind the library, the tall city buildings behind consumed by the yellow-grey murk of the smoke haze. I hate to think of their deep breaths as they run. There are fewer people out than usual: the smoke stings in our eyes, catches in our throats. It takes a lot to slow a city, but the smoke has done it.
When I look up at the sky at sunset, see the red sun and the sickly orange light over everything, I think about a scene from the movie One Night Stand, set in Sydney and released in 1984. It’s an odd and somewhat awkward film, part teen romance, part apocalyptic drama. Four teenagers are inside the Opera House when world nuclear war strikes, and they switch between a goofy denial of the situation – drinking, trying on the costumes, and telling each other stories – and horror at the impending atomic doom. At first I found it amusingly kitsch but as the film progressed and the disaster unfolded, it became chilling more than anything. The scene that stuck with me was of two of the characters looking out the huge windows of the Opera House, up into the sky, which is bright red between the black clouds and flashes of lightning. A sick, angry sky that warns of the coming turmoil. A scene for uneasy times.
Often on Mirror Sydney I write about details, and try to suggest how they lead out into wider stories, but the smoke makes me do the opposite, to move from the large down to the small. The smell of the smoke creeps into the house, even with the doors and windows shut, and it’s hard to think of anything else, or any other story to reflect on. Unlike the film scene, it is not fiction, not speculation, and there is no turning away from it.
Every time I pass by The Abbey I remember what it had been like on that day I visited it for the house-contents auction in 2009. The rooms with pale, dusty light coming in through the stained-glass windows, the paint peeling from the walls and the crooked, creaking passageways that formed the maze of rooms. People had rambled unescorted through the rooms, some of them looking at the objects up for auction, but most, like me, just curious to see inside.
Ten years on, I’m at The Abbey again, visiting the refurbished house and gardens as part of a focus tour for Sydney Open. Being November, the jacaranda trees are flowering, two purple clouds above bright pink bougainvillea. This frames the house, with its tower and gothic-arch windows and gargoyles.
The house feels different – lighter, more orderly – but the details of it are much the same. The entrance, with its blue ceiling painted with golden stars, opens out into the central hallway, which has a tiled floor and stencilled patterns of dragons and flowers on the walls. I pause here, deciding which way to turn. As with my visit ten years before, the house is open to walk through without restriction, and there are many doorways to choose from.
I choose the tower, and climb up the wide staircase, past the goddesses in the stained glass windows, and the entrances to bedrooms and sitting rooms, following the narrowing staircase up to the room at the top. From here I can see the smoke haze over the city, the silver stretch of harbour water, the roads choked with Saturday morning traffic. From this vantage point there seems to be barely any movement below, although I know that on ground level, out there, it would feel very different. It is tranquil in the tower room, and I sit on the cushioned bench under the windows until I can hear another visitor’s footsteps ascending.
The Abbey is a house of details, and every wall, floor and fixture has some kind of pattern or motif to distinguish it, or a painted figure to keep watch, whether it be a goddess chiselling a sculpture, bearded gents carousing, or owls or cockatoos. The house feels alive with these characters, as if they hold within them something of the spirits of the many people who have lived here over the last century. These figures have watched cycles of residents move through, have watched the house fall into disrepair, and have seen its restoration.
The sunroom where I remember spending a few minutes on the auction day – watching the rain coming in and noticing the tendrils of vine that had snaked in from the outside – is now clear and neat, and the sun shines through the stained-glass windows. It’s an office now, with a desk and shelves and the regular details of a contemporary room. I go to look out through the patterned panes at the houses on the streets below, their front gardens decorated with giant spiderwebs made of torn-up sheets (Halloween was a few nights earlier, and Annandale houses seem to favour giant spiders in giant webs as their decoration).
The house is made up of three sections: the main wing with the tower, a connecting annexe with a long colonnade that looks over the garden, which leads to another, smaller, wing of the house. On the ground floor of the annexe is the kitchen, outside which the house’s owners chat to visitors and their two old, friendly dogs lean in for a pat.
It’s a house that excites your imagination, one of the visitors says. Yes, says another, I’ve always wondered what it is like in here. All through the house people are saying much the same as this, for it is indeed one of those houses that sets you wondering, trying to imagine what it might be like to step inside. Sometimes, on rare occasions, you get the chance, to see how it is now, to imagine how it might have been, and to look out from the windows at the harbour and the city beyond.
Thank you to Sydney Open for another year of excellent tours and openings – there’s still tickets for tomorrow if you’re reading this before Sunday Nov. 3rd and haven’t bought one yet! I’m doing a talk in the Members Lounge at 1:30pm too.
This year during Sydney Open I’m going to go on a tour of The Abbey, on Johnston Street in Annandale. I thought, as Part 1 to the story, I’d reflect on my first visit, in 2009, when the house and its contents were up for auction.
If you know Annandale, you will know the Witches Houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions on the high side of Johnston Street with tall narrow spires like enormous witch’s hats. The subject of many generations’ fantasies of mansion-living, they preside over the street and the small terrace houses that cluster along the low-lying streets below. In the 1880s the block had been bought by the architect John Young, and eight grand houses built. Most of them remain, although in the 1960s two were demolished and replaced with red-brick apartment blocks that are now conspicuous in their plainness.
At first my attention had been attracted by Kenilworth, the house at the eastern end of the row. It has the tallest spire, which extends down in a column from top to bottom like a Victorian-era rocket-ship. But over time, often passing by them, my favourite of all the houses became the one on the corner. Up until the late-2000s it was partially hidden by tall trees and vines, which grew over the sandstone wall around it. Known as the Abbey, it had the look of an archetypal haunted house, overgrown, spooky and mysterious.
The story was that, in 1881, John Young had built it for his wife, as an enticement for her to join him in Sydney. It is an unusual kind of lure, a sprawling, neo-gothic castle, made of rough-hewn blocks of sandstone and attended by gargoyles, with rows of long, narrow stained glass windows, which give it the look of a reconstituted church. She was not enticed, and the house went on to various uses and fortunes. In the early 20th century, being so large and being located in the then-working-class suburb of Annandale, it was divided up into apartments, before being returned to the one owner when it was bought by the Davis family in 1959.
I’d long-wondered what it was like inside. Many people knew: it had been notorious for the parties held there, and in the Davis-era the house saw many visitors and residents. The Abbey’s patriarch was Geoffrey Davis, a medical doctor and member of the the mid-twentieth-century group of left-wing and anti-authoritarian writers and intellectuals known as the Sydney Push. Reading into the house’s history, I was particularly interested to find out that the writer Christina Stead, author of Seven Poor Men of Sydney, The Man Who Loved Children, and For Love Alone, had lived here at the very end of her life in 1982.
Dr Davis died in 2008, and shortly afterwards the house, and all its contents, were put up for sale. One weekend the house was open for the viewing of the contents auction. My chance to visit had arrived. Many others were also taking the opportunity, as the rooms seethed with people. Inside, the rooms seemed joined together in a confusing maze, all different sizes and levels of formality. I examined the miscellaneous objects displayed within them as I moved through the warren of interconnecting chambers. Everything was a bit dusty and motheaten, leather upholstery cracked, paint and wallpaper peeling, the rooms smelling of cats.
The objects on display were the strange, stranded junk of a lifetime and beyond: phonographs, collections of shells, magic lantern slides, landscape paintings, 78rpm records, cloisonne vases, a zither, bevel-edged mirrors, tiles painted with butterflies or scenes from Shakespeare. Everything that could be removed from the house had a tag dangling from it, from the chandeliers to a box containing rusty tins of shoe polish. I had a printed booklet in my hand but soon gave up trying to correlate the listings with the objects and just moved through the rooms, trying to imagine myself there decades before, at one of the notorious parties.
At the time of the auction of the house and of its contents, there were many articles in the media about The Abbey. Some of these included interviews with members of the Davis family who had grown up in the house. My favourite detail was from one of his children, who had admitted that it “had been difficult moving on to regular homes after a youth in the Abbey”.
I tried to imagine it as I stood in a long, narrow sunroom at the side of the house. One of the panels in the stained glass windows was missing, and rain was coming in, down onto the vases on the table below. This rainy sunroom was the only room I’d been in alone, and I felt as if I was playing a game of hide and seek as I stood there, looking at a collection of shells in a box. Inside it there was a crumpled, unfilled-in application for a dog license in between a conch and a nautilus shell, and I smoothed it out and replaced it, feeling like I, too, had ended up here at random, among all the miscellaneous objects that were soon to be moved off elsewhere.