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?
UFO sightings in Sydney, while relatively frequent, are nonetheless fleeting. You have to be looking at the sky at just the right moment to notice the glowing orbs and mysterious shapes that sometimes appear above us. Some areas like the Northern Beaches are known UFO hot spots with a database of encounters to prove it. But there is no need to visit the Narrabeen Lakes and wait for the bright lights. Alien space craft exist among us on the ground.
The bright lights and weird shapes seen over Narrabeen are perhaps attracted to the three spherical structures at the centre of the public school. These are binishells, concrete domes constructed in the 1970s in a NSW government project which saw 14 of these curious buildings appear across the state. The structures were masterminded by the Italian architect Dante Bini. He developed a construction method where concrete was sprayed over a membrane which was then inflated to form a dome. In the six years Bini spent in Sydney in the early 1970s numerous binishells were constructed in primary and high schools.
Binishells rise up out of the school grounds like concrete blisters or grounded flying saucers. Many a student, while sitting their HSC exams in a binishell hall, might have wished for the flying saucer to take off and get them out of there, but the only surprise movement to have occurred with one was the collapse of the Pittwater High School binishell in 1986. This led to investigations into their safety but with reinforcement the binishells were allowed to stay. They can be found dotted across Sydney, in Turramurra (Ku-ring-gai High School), Ashbury, Fairfield, Killarney Heights and Narrabeen North. Others at Peakhurst and Randwick have now been demolished. Plans for binishell houses – known as the “minishell” – were devised, but house domes never made it to the Sydney suburbs. (For binishell fans, visit the Groundwork exhibition in October to see the bini-related work by Zanny Begg.)
Sydney does have a number of space ship houses, however. The most notorious is familiar to anyone who drives north across the Spit Bridge. It perches on the steep hillside above Middle Harbour, its circular form bulging out in segments of tall windows. It has a kind of James Bond villian’s lair ambiance, bringing to mind images of lurid flared pantsuits, cocktails and the retro futurism of 60s style.
The house was built in 1964 by architect Stan Symonds, known for his free form, sculptural designs. He is responsible for various unusual Northern Beaches houses, including the Pittwater house with the surprisingly phallic floorplan (its recent sale was a subeditors dream for headline puns) and the Seaforth Dome house (listed on Airbnb for the very curious). The Seaforth house visible from the Spit Bridge is known officially as Vendome, or the Schuchard House, although it’s known by many as the space ship house or the flying saucer house.
I walk along the pedestrian path of the Spit Bridge towards the space ship house. The Spit Bridge is not a particularly striking structure most of the time, except for the 5 or so times a day a section of it lifts up to allow ships to pass through. The part that moves is a central section of metal girders and mesh. It shudders under my feet as the traffic rushes over it and the metal booms and echoes. I endure this disconcerting experience as I stop to peer over at the space ship house. The room that bulges out is like a fishbowl and I can see the indistinct shapes of furniture inside it. Then a shape shifts and I realise there’s someone in there, wearing a red shirt, moving about. Feeling voyeuristic I drop my gaze and continue across the bridge, as men in suits and sunglasses drive by in convertibles, and buses pick up speed before tackling the hill up to Seaforth.
From the street there is little clue to the space ship below, besides the house’s curved roof. But from here I can see down across Middle Harbour with its clusters of white boats, and watch as the cars stop on either side of the bridge, the boom gate go down, and the centre slowly rises.
The Seaforth spaceship house isn’t alone. Craft have landed across Sydney, in Earlwood:
and in Eschol Park near Cambelltown, the bizarre Mount Universe, the never finished headquarters for the Universal Power society. The structure, once visible from the surrounding suburbs but now obscured by trees, was based on Saturn’s rings. Construction began in the late 1970s but not completed, although the sign remains at the gates.
The 1960s and 70s were the era of space ship buildings. They were no doubt influenced by the space age, but their other dominant influence was concrete. The adaptability of concrete as a building material enabled the construction of the binishells and the free form structure of the Shuchard House. But of all architectural styles there is none more celebratory of concrete than Brutalism. As a architectural style it produced bold, solid designs in concrete. Although the name refers to the French term for raw concrete – béton brut – the “brute” in brutalism is a good description of the assertive effect of the buildings.
Among the office blocks of Crows Nest another space ship rests. An inverted concrete pyramid inside wide columns like rocket boosters, the St Leonards Centre looks like it could blast off if given sufficient force. Rather like the Sydney Masonic Centre, its inverted shape gives it a mysterious atmosphere and it’s hard to imagine what exactly might be going on inside.
The St Leonards Centre opened in 1972 as the central computing hub for the CBC Bank. Like the Reader’s Digest Building in Surry Hills its computer was a central feature of the building, and employees could enter the viewing platform to watch the Honeywell 6000 in action on Level 8. The building was described as “an architectural first – a sculptured office building” with “one of the most sophisticated computer installations in Australia”. More than 100 CBC bank branches across Sydney were linked to this computer, making it a kind of central banking brain at the core of the space ship. The pamphlet explaining this new technology describes how each branch will be able to “talk” to the computer through their terminals and receive an immediate response. Beam me up!
Of all of Sydney’s spaceships the most well known, and most central, is the CTA Building in Martin Place. Designed by Harry Seidler in the 1970s, it is so unusual a structure that seems more like a sculpture than building. The thought that it actually had an interior only dawned upon me when I visited it for the Kaldor Art Projects Thomas Demand exhibition in 2012. At the exhibition visitors discovered a series of tiny bedrooms, hotel rooms for commercial travellers passing through Sydney. The slits in the drum are the bedroom’s windows, with a view out across Martin Place.
The CTA Building was a part of Seidler’s MLC Centre design, built on a large Castlereagh Street site. Demolished to build the MLC Centre was Hotel Australia, the Theatre Royal, Rowe Street and the previous Commercial Traveller’s Association Club, a tall, sandstone building on the corner of Martin Place. It was replaced by the small, neat building, often described as a mushroom, sometimes lovingly, other time disparagingly.
Having reached the central space ship I was drawn to the entrance at the base of the curved stem. Inside I entered a metal capsule and was drawn downwards into a dimly lit, red cavern. The floor was patterned with dying stars, so bright they were difficult to focus on. I sat in a curve of dark red velvet and found a tube of cold, sparkling liquid in front of me. I sipped it and underneath my feet felt the rumble of the craft readying for takeoff. Music started: to my surprise it was Pulp’s “Disco 2000”. The extraterrestrials, with their superior knowledge, had known exactly what song would keep me at ease during the ascent.
In the permanent shade of the elevated railway the murals appear like dreams. They are a jumble of city memories, scenes from the past of this place. The forest, the working harbour, protests for land rights and against the redevelopment of Woolloomoloo in the 1970s. In the centre of one mural protesters march under the Green Bans banner, arms linked, feet mid-step. Surrounding the mural is the suburb they marched to save.
Elsewhere in the city are fading images of dinosaurs and people waving from the balconies of terrace houses. A woman with a parrot in a cage looks down from a trompe l’oeil window, a tiger chases a bird from behind the real trees that have grown to obscure the painted wall behind it.
These community murals are more than thirty years old, painted in the early 1980s by artists and locals. As well as the histories of people and places they retain the traces of a time of optimism for art and social change. They were works that celebrated resistance and the potential of collaboration, and capture a particular era of activism, energised by the culture of protest of the 1970s. Through actions like the Green Bans communities had successfully opposed the destruction of the urban environment for development. Activism carried over to the arts: post punk gigs in abandoned buildings; the political posters produced at the Tin Sheds in primary colours and bright fluoros, protesting nuclear testing and showing solidarity for workers’ and women’s rights.
Though they were painted over 30 years ago a surprising number of 1980s murals can still be found around the city and suburbs. Some have been restored, others are now much faded. While there is no shortage of new murals these days the 80s ones have a particular energy and atmosphere that distinguishes them from the mostly decorative recent murals. The 80s murals are time capsules with a gentle and surreal presence suggesting other ways of being and thinking in the city.
In 1982 The Mural Manual was published, a guide to community murals by David Humphries and Rodney Monk which documented new mural projects across Australia and provided practical information on how to organise and paint them. Humphries and Monk, both mural artists, had established a mural company, the Public Art Squad, together in 1978. In the introduction Humphries wrote that murals provide “a release from drabness in the city, a splash of colour in the country, a shiver of unexpected pleasure wherever [they are] found. It allows ordinary people to communicate in unaccustomed ways, to put a personal stamp on their chunk of the world”.
With The Mural Manual as a guide, and after a few years of mural searching, documenting, and information gathering, here is a tour of Sydney’s 1980s community murals. I have noted the principal coordinating artists in the credits, but all were painted by a team of artists and community members.
1. Macquarie University Library (1978, David Humphries)
Its sheltered position in the walkway underneath the old Macquarie University library has kept bright this oldest of the remaining community murals. The Mural Manual describes its theme as “the effects on Aboriginal land rights and the environment by the media, nuclear power and intellectual training”. Like many of these murals, it’s a mix of the serious and the surreal: the university campus is pictured like a moon base among a desert; a superhero graduate couple rise up above a forest of televisions which form heads for an army of muscular charging figures.
2. Seven Hills Underpass (1979, Rodney Monk)
One of the most prominent community murals in Sydney is in Seven Hills on the underpass beneath Prospect Highway where it crosses the railway line, making the mural clearly visible from all the trains going by. The mural has been repainted since 1979 but shows the same scene of green fields modified by development and factories and also a bizarre pop cultural lineup of Ginger Meggs, soldiers, and a man with a question mark for a head. Above them Superman powers up into the painted sky, fist aloft.
The blue sky of the mural meets the real sky; Superman looks ready to leave his painted world and go off on a rescue mission. Up close the surface is peeling in parts and there are patches where the paint has peeled off to reveal the original mural underneath and its slightly different landscape of outer-space pyramids, a guess at a possible Seven Hills future.
3. The Crescent Mural, Annandale, 1980 (Rodney Monk)
The Crescent mural is painted on the railway embankment wall that runs alongside The Crescent in Annandale, where traffic feeds back and forth off the City West Link. Before the mural this wall had been a long stretch of bricks with a spraypainted slogan across it protesting the Whitlam sacking: Kerr-ist Cocky’s got an election (Kerr being the Governer General who dismissed Whitlam’s government in 1975, often caricatured as a cockatoo). The slogan reappears in the mural if you look closely.
Like the Seven Hills mural, the Crescent mural has been repainted (this one in 2004) and the design somewhat changed: the stealth bomber became a passenger jet, for example. The looming plane at the centre of the mural is one of its defining features, as is the painted tree trunk that joins up with a real palm tree growing on the embankment above, but there are plenty of details for motorists stuck in traffic to ponder (including a traffic jam of trucks with numberplates like GIVEADAMN and BUGAUP).
In the 1970s, as elsewhere in Sydney, this area was threatened by plans for redevelopment and road construction. This faced strong community opposition and the mural is in part a celebration of this spirit, as well as an acknowledgement of local history and concerns. It’s also just plain surreal and funny.
4. CYSS Mural, Rozelle, 1980 (Michiel Dolk)
This is Sydney’s mystery mural, unchanged since 1980, although now much faded and for most of the year hidden behind trees. In winter, after the leaves have dropped, the mural reappears and is visible from the street. It takes youth unemployment as its theme as it was painted on the wall of what was then the CYSS (community youth support scheme) – the building still offers youth employment services, though under a different name.
The mural shows the frame of a house with people occupied in various jobs: a woman saws a plank of wood, a man washes dishes, another man makes a call from a payphone. At the top, one figure passes a yellow sphere to the figure on top of the mural, who is seated on the window frame of the real attic windows of the building. Now this sun is faded, barely visible. Lower down the colours are brighter, and if you look in among the trees, you will find the tiger.
In 1980 Dolk, with Merilyn Fairskye and Jeff Stewart, also painted the ACI Glassworks mural in Waterloo, which commemorates the suburb’s industrial past.
4. Surry Hills Murals: What Bird is That? (1981, Peter Day)
In 1981 Peter Day was the Surry Hills community artist in residence, and over this time he coordinated the painting of a number of murals. Of them one remains, a bushland scene on the wall of a terrace house that faces a tiny park. Repainted in 2012 the new design, like the old, tricks the eye, so for a moment, the wall becomes a forest.
The other two Peter Day coordinated murals in Surry Hills were the Bourke Street Park mural which had a similar trompe l’oeil appearance, where a wall opened out into a landscape of cliffs and the ocean. The other was the Welcome to Surry Hills map on the side of an electricity substation on Devonshire Street, now a block of apartments.
Randwick’s Proud of Our Elders mural includes six notable locals: Ollie Simms, the oldest Aboriginal woman in La Perouse; Miss Wilhelmina Wylie, swimming champion and daughter of Henry Wylie who built Wylie’s Baths in Coogee; Alice Gundry, founding member of the Coogee Ladies Pool; Doris Hyde, president of the Coogee Ladies Swimming Club who “taught hundreds of children to swim”; Harry Reed, ex-jockey; and Greta Fyson, who “feed the pigeons every day in the park on Coogee Bay Road near the nursing home where she lives”.
The mural was repainted in 2011 as the original was fading, and Doris Hyde’s wise gaze continues to observe the residents of Randwick as they make their way along Belmore Road.
6. Women and Work, Domain (1982, Carol Ruff)
Of all Sydney’s 1980s murals this is the most degraded, in a peeling, sorry state, mostly covered by graffiti and signs for the parking station. It makes me sad to see it this way as it is one of my favourites: every time I pass by I expect it to be gone, but for now you can still make out some of the figures. Painted in 1982 it was part of the landmark Women and the Arts festival in 1982, which included around 1000 events and generated much creative work by women across the arts.
Judy McGee from Pel Mel is still visible in her blue tights, playing her synthesiser, despite the door cut into the wall behind her. At the tallest end of the mural a woman stands in the kitchen with her dog, although she has now been imprisoned by an overpass.
Of all of Sydney’s 1980s murals the Woolloomooloo murals have perhaps the greatest status as political artworks. The pylons of the Eastern Suburbs Railway viaducts formed a gallery on which 16 murals about political and social issues – especially the Green Bans and redevelopment threats to the area in the 1970s – were hung. Eight of these have been preserved, although not repainted: the artists requested the works only be minimally restored to keep their patina of age.
The murals were the backdrop for the Midnight Oil video “The Power and the Passion” although, as related in this story of the making of the video, to the artists’ consternation the band didn’t ask for permission to film in front of the murals. Nevertheless, the video captures something of the atmosphere of these odd spaces underneath the viaduct, which itself carved up Woolloomoloo, although to nowhere near the extent of the planned developments in the 1970s which were halted by the Green Bans.
8. Redfern Bridge Mural/40,000 Years is a Long, Long Time (1983, Carol Ruff)
The 40,000 years mural, on the railway bridge above Redfern station, is named after the lines from the No Fixed Address song that are painted on the wall. It’s a striking reminder of Aboriginal land and history, and visually underlies the tall buildings of the city which can be seen behind it. The mural is currently undergoing a restoration with images this time being painted on panels rather than the wall. The wall mural is currently much faded, but you can still make out the silhouettes of the Indigenous All Stars, the first Aboriginal rugby team from 1973.
9. King George V Mural, The Rocks (1984, Peter Day)
At around 2000 metres squared, this is one of the longest murals in the southern hemisphere. It is painted along the viaduct leading to the Harbour Bridge as a trompe l’oeil. The painted arches of the viaduct trick the eye into seeing a vista beyond of the harbour in front of which, most strikingly, a hot air balloon rises. In front of much of the mural is a recreation centre which obscures it somewhat, although provides an unusual background to basketball games: the full mural can be seen in this aerial photo from before the centre was built.
This is perhaps Sydney’s most high profile mural – literally as it is painted up above the city streets on the side of Pilgrim House. The mural was painted over altogether in 2001, before being reinstated two years later after the artists campaigned for it to return.
11. Think Globally, Act Locally, Redfern (1984, Public Art Squad)
This mural, another by the Public Art Squad, can be found in Redfern’s Reconciliation Park on George Street. It shares the dove motif from Peace, Justice and Unity, and shows the residents of the terrace houses and public housing blocks of Redfern and Waterloo, as well as a couple of dinosaurs framed by the outline of a demolished house.
Like many community murals, it includes groups of local people, long ago characters: my favourites in this one are the girl on the fence, and the man reading the newspaper which lists the painting’s credits.
Murals continued to be painted throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, among them notable works such as the Martin Luther King mural on King Street Newtown by Juilee Pryor and Andrew Aiken and the Tunnel Vision mural along the Domain Express Walkway by Tim Guider. Other iconic murals have disappeared, such as those that used to line the Devonshire Street tunnel at Central Station (Public Art Squad): now replaced by dull digital images of trains.
Others have disappeared completely, without trace, such as the oil tank mural of Matraville, painted in 1978 in a project co-ordinated by David Humphries and Rodney Monk. This mural was striking, rising up behind the headstones of the Eastern Suburbs cemetery. Across the tank was painted a blue landscape of ships and planes and dolphins, faces and structures, public memories mixed up into a dream landscape familiar and surreal.
It’s a testament to the work of the mural artists of the 1980s that so many of their works remain, although in some ways its not surprising. They have become iconic images from an era of protest and community engagement and the majority of their messages are as important as ever.
Bobbin Head Road stretches out, continuing beyond the cottages of North Turramurra, past the golf course and retirement homes, the rehabilitation hospital and the high school with a concrete binishell dome that resembles a stranded ufo. Past this is the Ku-RingGai Chase national park, the bushland which forms the northern boundary of Sydney.
On walking through the gates to the park there is an immediate shift as the atmosphere of the forest replaces that of the suburban landscape. This is the land of the Guringai people, eucalypts and woodlands, creeks and sandstone. There are walking tracks through the park and picnic areas here and there, but most of the land is forest. It’s an overcast day and there is no one else in sight as I walk down the path to the immediate right of the gates. Apart from the birds and the wind in the trees, all is still. Here and there hot pink ribbons are tied to the tree branches, marking out a course, the artificial colour striking against the green.
A little way along the path the Sphinx becomes visible, rising from a shelf of sandstone in the centre of an amphitheatre. Its thick lips and deep-set eyes create a peaceful but disquieting expression. The trails of black paint or oil which have run down its face and seeped into the stone add to this sense of disquiet. The black paint, though probably the work of some Turramurra vandals, give the sphinx a postapocalyptic look.
Two small pyramids are to either side of the Sphinx, faded wreaths at their base. The Sphinx is a war memorial and was carved by the returned soldier William Shirley in the 1920s. Shirley, a former stonemason, was a patient at the nearby Lady Davidson Convalescent Hospital and, inspired by a promising block of sandstone, carved the sphinx over two years as a tribute to his World War 1 comrades. Occasionally the sphinx is the focus for memorial services. More often it offers its mysterious smile to people heading out into the walking tracks through the park. Mostly the Sphinx sits alone in its stone lair, as the creatures in the surrounding forest rustle the leaves.
It’s peaceful here, if eerie. The amphitheatre, steps and the pyramids form an unexpected geometry and suggest something mystical is about to take place. Standing in front of the Sphinx I wait for it to test me with its riddle. No question comes to mind but a memory does, of a place not far away in North Turramurra. When I was a child my parents would drive me past it, knowing how it fascinated me, but I’d not seen it since. I leave the Sphinx with an urge to find it.
Turramurra is a suburb with tall trees and large gardens, most often described as “leafy” in real estate brochures or the rare occasions when it is mentioned in the media. In late winter the camellia bushes are in full bloom and the magnolias have flowered. White cockatoos weigh the branches of liquidambar trees, nibbling at the conkers before shrieking off to their next destination. I travel back along Bobbin Head Road and turn off about halfway down, guided by my memory. If the bushland is an unexpected place to encounter ancient Egypt, so is a quiet residential street deep in the suburbs. Among an otherwise unremarkable stretch of houses, the pyramids appear.
The pyramid house is no less strange to me than it had been when I was a child, a rare moment of synchronicity between past and present. Rising up from behind a grassy mound is the steep sides of a pyramid, with another visible behind. The pyramids are covered by dark, shiny roof tiles and the whole place has a secretive appearance. That this could be a house with messy teenage bedrooms inside it, a kitchen with bills and bric a brac collecting on the bench, and a lounge room with a tv and bookcases, seemed unusual to my childhood mind. Surely, whoever lived there must do so in an extraordinary way.
Searching for pyramids in the Sydney suburbs is an occupation that calls to mind natural science researcher Rex Gilroy. Gilroy has identified a number of pyramids in Australia, most strikingly the Gympie Pyramid, the origins of which are attributed variously to Egypt, South America, China, and the lost civilization of Uru. Gilroy collects traces of previous civilisations in the landscape – pyramids, suggestively shaped rocks, engravings. One chapter of Gilroy’s book on Uru has the title “Suburban Atlantis – Pyramid Builders Of Sydney’s West“. Pyramid builders persist into the present: 100 000 tonnes of soil from the construction of the M7 motorway was used to make a 25 metre pyramid at Prestons. The great south western pyramid fits neatly within a triangle of exit ramps.
Sydney’s most central pyramid is in the Royal Botanical Gardens, although it is soon to disappear. Built in 1972 to house tropical plants, the pyramid glasshouse faces demolition ahead of the construction of a new centre called the “Biome”, set to open in 2016. For now the pyramid is still there, rising up mysteriously from the lawns where people picnic, have weddings, and lie stretched out in the sun at all seasons of the year.
Up close the pyramid’s panes of glass are murky and people have traced messages in the dust on the outside, names and squiggles, a cartoon eye. Peering in, for the pyramid is closed to the public now, the vines still clamber across the trees and the interior has a damp, ferny lushness. In the adjacent glasshouse building the plants have been removed and the rock and concrete structures that once supported them are bare. Only a big staghorn fern is left, clinging to the back wall amid dangling wires and ropes. The walkways snake through this abandoned grotto.
The gardens and their surrounds have many traces of ancient Egypt. Across from the Art Gallery of NSW are a pair of bronze Sphinxes, cast from a pair of sandstone Sphinxes that once guarded the swingset on Art Gallery Road.
Elsewhere in the gardens is one of the many Sydney obelisks. It rises from the centre of the pond next to the cafe and contains the remains of botanist Allan Cunningham. He was an early collector of Australian plants and was in 1837 the superintendant of the botanic gardens, though he resigned in disgust at finding his job to be mostly “a mere cultivator of cabbages and turnips” in the Governer’s kitchen garden. In 1901 his remains were removed from the Devonshire Street Cemetery (as all of the remains were – the cemetery was to become Central Station), placed in a lead casket and housed in this obelisk.
Ancient Egyptian obelisks are thought to represent the rays of the sun, but Sydney’s obelisks are put to diverse, utilitarian purposes. The most well known Sydney obelisk is at the edge of Hyde Park. No mere decoration, it doubles as a sewer vent chimney, and was the city’s first. While there are many other sewer vent chimneys in Sydney, this is the only one within an obelisk. When it was constructed in 1857 and its purpose became known, it was called “Thornton’s Scent Bottle” after the Lord Mayor of the time, George Thornton.
Travelling west, another stop on the ancient Egypt tour of Sydney is the Egyptian room in the Petersham Masonic Centre, decorated with scenes from the Book of the Dead. It’s a mysterious place, only open to the public one evening a year. Further west, after a slow drive along Parramatta Road, another Sphinx appears. This one is outside Euro Iron in Lidcombe, guarding wrought iron fences and screens and patches of dead grass. This is one of the road’s more desolate stretches, between the Rentokil headquarters and the big empty China Fair warehouse with the lantern on the sign peeling and faded. Trash from the street collects around the grass at the base of the Sphinx, receipts and packets, scraps of plastic and paper. It gathers and disperses but the Sphinx stays constant, smiling slightly at the passing cars as if they’re barely there.
On the front page of the newspaper, between the articles about finance and climate, was what appeared to be a more immediate threat: “Feral Pigs Invade Sydney”. The pigs have reached suburbs such as Hurstville and Hunters Hill and are on the move. They’ve swum rivers and crossed roads and they’re coming closer to the city. They have heard that on the most powerful street in Sydney, near the state parliament building, there is an idol in their image.
Il Porcellino is one of five copies of a 16th century Florentian statue of a wild boar which are on display in different locations around the world. Sydney’s Porcellino has been in his position outside Sydney Hospital since 1968. Fittingly for a hospital mascot his nose constantly drips, making Il Porcellino into one of the city’s more unusual fountains. The tip of his snout is kept shiny by the hands of those who rub it for luck as they pass by. For luck enhancement Il Porcellino also guards an oversized piggy bank set in the plinth below, into which people can drop coins to donate to the hospital.
Further along Macquarie Street there is another animal idol. Trim the cat is perched lightly, a front paw aloft and eyes uplifted in an expression of feline attentiveness, on the sandstone window ledge outside the Friend’s Room of the Mitchell Library. On the other side of the window are shelves with hundreds of editions of Don Quixote. But it’s to another adventurer, Matthew Flinders, whom Trim owes his fame. In front of Trim Flinders’ statue looks sternly out towards Macquarie street, grasping a sextant. As well as a colonial hero Flinders was a cat lover. He was so taken with his wily ship’s cat that he wrote a book about Trim’s charms, describing his intelligent physiognomy, his bravery and sure-footedness at sea, and his repertoire of tricks.
As with Il Porcellino Trim has his wild suburban counterparts. Down Foxs Lane in Ashfield one evening, around the corner from the mural of a giant sea dragon on the wall of the fish market, I came across a carpark where cats congregate. A tiny grey kitten was eating a leftover slice of pizza from a box with a motley assortment of other cats assembled around, black and white ones, a ginger, a tabby. They fixed their glares on me and the other people shortcutting through the laneway, warning us to come no closer. These stray cat families prowl the streets after dark, eyes glowing in car headlights, slinking through the cracks in fences and into the drains.
Dogs too have a central city icon. As Trim dwells in the shadow of Flinders’ statue, so does the terrier Islay with Queen Victoria, outside the Queen Victoria building. Pause at the edge of Islay’s wishing well for a few moments and he starts to speak (with John Law’s voice). His abrupt “hello” has startled decades’ worth of unwary tourists and infrequent city visitors who lean up against the fountain. Islay’s domain is a wishing well at the edge of a circular sandstone structure which was constructed to hide the large air vent necessary for the carpark below the Queen Victoria Building. An ornamental grille disguises the vent as a Victorian folly. Islay was Victoria’s favourite dog and his signature trick was to sit up on his hind legs and beg for treats. The Sydney Islay sits in this pose and, via the medium of Laws, he requests we “cast a coin” into the wishing well for the good of deaf and blind children. A moment passes. “Thankyou”, says Islay, then follows up with a few mechanical woofs.
In the days before Islay another more unlikely creature became the guardian of a wishing well. The Australian Museum has in its collection a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish thought to have been extinct until one was discovered in 1938 off the coast of South Africa. The Museum’s preserved specimen dates from the 1960s and became the wishing fish when people started dropping coins into its tank through a crack in the case around it. Eventually the coins discoloured the water and the wishes had to cease, though the coelacanth is still on display and may still grant wishes if people stare into its sunken eyes and imagine their wishes deep out in the ocean.
These city animal idols in their frozen bronze postures, or preserved in the museum, are safely contained. Their real counterparts are less predictable. Sydney, like many cities, sustains an uneasy relationship with its creatures. Some are celebrated while others are despised. The problem creatures are often those that highlight human intervention and will never have a commemorative statue in their honour. Commonly these are the introduced species: rats, myna birds, pigeons, rabbits and foxes. Others are native creatures pushed out of their habitats, such as the ibis, which has found in the urban environment and its rubbish bins a replacement for the inner NSW wetlands that were once their breeding grounds. Resolutely unpopular, ibis stalk through Hyde Park, stealing sandwiches, alarming picnickers, and being photographed by the tourists who haven’t yet learnt that it’s not the done thing to admire the “tip turkeys”.
In a vacant lot beside the Reading Cinemas on Parramatta Road in Auburn a crowd of ibis have taken over a low, wide, shrub, and turned it into a nest. Ibis are good at finding these kinds of leftover spaces. This is a corner where no person would think to go, at the edge of the cinema carpark, next to the concrete channel that is Haslam’s Creek, and across from the Toohey’s brewery with its weird water tower poking up above the factory buildings like a concrete mushroom. The ibis spend all day here, honking and shuffling their wings while the traffic roars past. Though the nest could seem temporary against the drab aesthetics of the built environment surrounding it, perhaps it is the other way around. Sydney is in fact the province of the ibis, who will outsmart the factories and the highways and always find a place for their nests.
Animal stories in Sydney are often tales of encroachment, of animals ended up where humans don’t want them to be. A dead whale washed up in the Newport ocean pool, escaped water buffalo charging along King Street, western Sydney’s elusive panther, the large, black cat-like beast of which there are regular sightings but never any conclusive enough to determine what this creature might actually be. Possums thunder over roofs, sounding like clumsy burglars. Brush turkeys alarm north shore gardeners by emerging from the bushland, raking the ground with their large claws on their path towards destruction of careful landscaping.
Despite attempts to control the more unruly creatures – feral pig shooting parties, poisoned carrots for the wild rabbits, golf buggies rigged up with speakers to play industrial noises to move on colonies of flying foxes – Sydney’s animals aren’t so easily tamed.
The suburbs are a vast zoo, overrun with animals. Bears lurk on the sides of old theatres turned furniture warehouses, or advertise real estate.
The western suburbs panther may be elusive, but there are city corners on which big cats lurk.
Elephants are mostly found in parks and playgrounds, like this trio found in the Sir Joseph Banks Pleasure Gardens in Botany, which also includes some terrifying apes.
Elephants also occasionally stop by tea houses for refreshment. The Robur elephant, on loan from Wirth’s Circus, made a tour of Robur tea rooms in the 1930s, including the Bussell Brothers store on Anzac Parade in Maroubra and the city rooms at 695 George Street. Here the creature was posed with a giant teacup and some slightly nervous companions.
Wild animals are often encountered without the security of their circus trainers standing by with a stick. This Petersham garden has something a little fiercer than the usual small stone lions that guard the front gate . A lion and a tiger snarl at any who dare approach them and their prey.
Although animal encounters in Sydney often occur when creatures intervene in the human realm, there are a few places that are animals’ domain. The various zoos and wildlife parks around Sydney are the sanctioned versions of these places but here and there, as with the ibis nests, the animals have chosen where they want to be. Behind the Cumberland Hospital and alongside the Parramatta River exists a colony of grey-headed flying foxes. They hang in the branches of the pine trees and eucalypts, chittering and clucking, looking down with black, beady eyes.
I walk quietly down to the water’s edge. The river is shallow here, and a concrete weir spans it like a path of stepping stones. It’s a weekday afternoon and no other people are around. The flying foxes are a strange kind of company. There are thousands of them in constant sound and movement, and every so often one takes flight, stretching its leathery, translucent wings. It’s a surprise to find this kind of place in a city. It’s not unmarked by human presence; nowhere in Sydney is. But it is a place from where the human world momentarily recedes.
Flying foxes are a familiar sight on summer nights when they set out across Sydney just after sunset. Their black shapes look as if pieces of shadow have detached from the dark and are slowly moving across the sky. Sometimes I pick out one of the black bat shapes and watch it until it disappears from my view. Although it is beyond my vision I know it continues to travel, above and across the houses and gardens, the roads and factories, the cars stopped at traffic lights and the people sitting on their back steps smoking, the stray cats out exploring and the possums in the trees, over everything that makes up the city.
The mural on the side of the Domain parking station is peeling and obscured in parts by graffiti, but its details are still visible if you look past the decay. In the centre of the mural is a woman playing a synthesiser. Above her short, red hair the words Head Above Water are still visible through the grime. She’s Judy McGee of Pel Mel, one of the key bands involved in the flourishing Sydney post-punk scene in the early 1980s.
In the early 80s inner city Sydney had plentiful run down terrace houses and easily squattable empty office buildings, and it was easy to get by on the dole and devote time to making music. New bands sprung up weekly, with obscure names like Hope is a New Coat, No Night Sweats, The Goat that Went Om or Brrr Cold. They played shows at old pubs like the Sussex Hotel or the Governer’s Pleasure Tavern at Circular Quay, unusual venues such as the St Peters parish hall on Devonshire Street, or under the newly constructed pylons of the Western Distributor at Darling Harbour.
Sydney was a different city then. The mood, at least among the post-punk music scene, was one of space and possibility. In interviews, musicians from that time describe the plentiful spaces and the communities that sprung up among what seemed to be the ruins of a past city. Abandoned buildings, unloved terrace houses, old working men’s pubs with a dwindling, ageing clientele. Dave Studdert of Tactics, described the Sydney of the time as “empty”, but it was a productive emptiness. Sydney’s emptiness, its holes and cracks, were an invitation. Tactics had moved to Sydney from Canberra. Most of the musicians who ended up in Surry Hills and Darlinghurst were from elsewhere, be it the Sydney suburbs or other cities. Pel Mel moved from Newcastle in 1980 and took up residence in two big terrace houses in Commonwealth Street, near Central station. These houses were were a hub of activity. “If you didn’t actually live there,” writes Phil Turbull, once of Voigt/465, “then you went there all the time anyway.” Like Melbourne, Sydney had a “little bands” scene of offshoot and one-off bands, which might get together to play one or two shows before breaking up.
Music can be a good way to time travel. Listening to the songs from this scene and era, the scratchy punk songs and songs with cool female vocals, synthesisers and saxophones, I imagine I can hear the Sydney of the time in the music. Songs made to fill empty rooms.
1. Head Above Water – Pel Mel
This song has a video filmed in a large, rickety wooden building , somewhere I assume is on Sydney Harbour, but I don’t know exactly where – do let me know if you can identify it.
UPDATE: Mystery solved. “A big old timber coal box near Sydney Fish Market. Parts of it are still there, on the water opposite Wentworth Park,” Pel Mel say.
2. Driving Me – The Particles
“I want you to stay but I can’t see to say it/the words just won’t come/so I’m driving you home instead”
The Particles came together in a small block of flats on Berry Street in North Sydney, where punk bands lived and rehearsed until the building was demolished in the late 1970s.
3. Sabotage – Sardine V
Sardine V were a side project for Ian Rilen of X with his wife, Stephanie.
4. Curl Curl – Tame O’Mearas
Drummerless, experimental – they described their style as playing with their instruments rather than playing them.
5. Fun Loving – Dropbears
The video for this song features one of the crumbling terrace houses, and was shot on a bright summer’s day; it’s a familiar kind of light.
6. Parramatta Road – XL Capris
Punk rather than post-punk, XL Capris are best known for their cover of My City of Sydney, a version which gets at the feeling of loving a place which can be hard to love. They had great names: Nancy Serapax, Errol Cruz, Alligator Bagg and Dag Rattler.
7. Hilton Bomber – Thought Criminals
Classic Sydney punk band and their take on the Sydney Hilton Hotel bombing in 1978. The Thought Criminals were one of the first bands of this era I heard, thanks to the Alternative Music Show on 2SER, hosted by Wayne DZ. This show is still on air and I recommend it highly.
8. No Control – Ya Ya Choral
Described by Mark Mordue as the “dark side of winnie the pooh”. Ya Ya Choral described their sound as “tinkily bonk”. Both good descriptions.
9. Ghost Train – The Limp
Pel Mel side project with a slightly more electronic focus than Pel Mel. Ghost Train is elegant and melancholy, a contemplative song.
10. Standing by the Window – Tactics
Tactics had a number of styles and influences but this song is fairly straightforward punk. Dave Studdert’s distinctive, high tensile voice makes the peaceful-sounding activity of standing by a window into something laced with menace.
11. The Pirate Song – The Goat That Went Om
Of all the band names from Sydney post-punk, The Goat That Went Om is my pick for most obscure. A song about pirates with a keyboard sound like a wind up music-box.
12. State – Voight/465
The photograph of Voigt/465 playing under the pylons of the western distributor is one of my favourite photos of Sydney, and one of my favourite band photos. The gig ended when the police arrived.
13. The Dumb Waiters – The Makers of the Dead Travel Fast
They wrote a song called “The Dead Travel Fast” – hence their name. Also listen to their wonderfully odd single Tael of a Seaghors.
There are many good resources online for this time in Sydney’s musical history. No Night Sweats is a comprehensive archive of post-punk Sydney, compiled by Phil Turnbull (Voigt 465, Wild West, No Night Sweats). There’s a Radio National documentary, Do That Dance, which includes interviews with many of the musicians from that time and some good descriptions of the Sydney of the time.
M Squared Records released music by many of Sydney’s post-punk bands.
There are a number of compilations such as Can’t Stop It Vol. 1 and 2 on Chapter Music and Inner City Sound – the soundtrack to the Clinton Walker book of the same name, also an excellent resource for this time in Sydney music history.
A holiday gift from Mirror Sydney – Sydney as a bauble. At the centre is the AMP tower, built in 1962.
Post-Christmas Edit: For those interested in the rest of the leaflet, here it is: