In about half an hour the citywide lockdown will be announced, but for now, I sit at the edge of the water, watching its surface sparkle in the sunlight. Not so long ago, to sit here would be to watch the steady comings and goings of international flights from the airport. The international terminal is close by, just on the other side of the water. I can see its multi-storey carparks and the belt of highway that skirts its perimeter. But only one cargo plane departs the whole time I’m sitting there, and the sky belongs to the clouds.
Oyster shells cluster on the rocks at the river’s edge. Goolay’yari/Cooks River, re-routed when the airport expanded, to a different, artificial shape, straightened out, but still the same flow of water. The wooden ramp I am sitting at the end of leads up to the rowing club, and I walk up and around to the front of the building. On the facade is a tiled mural of rowers, made by the artist Vladimir Tichy at his Studio Tichy in 1978, the same year the club opened. A gold boat, four rowers, the coxswain at the stern, calling out, his voice indicated by a gold fan-shaped speech bubble. In the last few weeks I’ve been writing an article about Tichy’s remaining ceramic murals, and this had been one I was yet to visit.
In the streets around here new apartment blocks have been constructed in the last five years, replacing the houses I had come to know from the taxi ride to or from the airport. The taxi route would dogleg through these back streets to go between the Princes Highway and Airport Drive, and I’d make a point to look for the pale yellow fibro house on the corner. One early morning, from the taxi window, I’d seen a man sitting on the front step of this house, holding a steaming mug of coffee in one hand, and patting a ginger cat with the other. I took that image of the man and his cat up into the sky with me, and call it to mind now even though there is an apartment block there instead.
Rather than go towards the airport I turn in the other direction. On one side of the road are houses, the other apartment blocks, like the road is the line between the past and future. On the apartment side there’s one house left, boarded up, fenced off, caught on the wrong side of time.
The roar of the highway grows stronger the closer I come to it. I turn onto it, the stretch leading up the hill from Wolli Creek to Arncliffe. Service stations, mechanics, car yards, and the headquarters of Golf NSW, a high bunker of a building with long mirrored windows and an impenetrable facade.
Steps beside it lead up to a little park, noisy from the traffic but enclosed by trees. A forlorn bubbler and a plastic ride-on horse are striped by the long shadows cast by the branches. I sit on the bench beside the horse, facing Golf NSW, imagining how all the office mugs would be novelty mugs featuring golf jokes, of the kind I usually skim my eyes over immediately when I see them in the op shop.
Back down beside the highway I continue walking, past a couple of houses high up above the level of the road, and then more factories. On the sheepskin upholstery business the painted signs are fading. Whenever I pass by I look for this building, as if it has something to reveal to me. The sun has bleached its signage to the point where the lettering and cartoon boots and car seats have taken on an abstract quality, their red and yellow outlines making awkward shapes against their backgrounds. On the roll-a-door is a giant painted 78 like two stray numbers from a lettering book, black with yellow drop-shadows. A real estate sign announces the building to have been leased, but it has been that way for months, now.
Across the road, cars surge up out from the motorway tunnel before stopping at the lights. The sun plays hide and seek with the clouds, turning the light from dull to bright, like it can’t decide which is the right mood. I’ve checked the news on my phone by now and I know lockdown’s been declared, starting in four hours’ time. I start back down the hill on the other side, looking over it all again – sheepskin warehouse, the high-set houses, the golf compound. At the base of the hill I stand waiting for the lights to change, standing by a recently-set panel of concrete, paler than the others. Written into it: Bidjigal Land, this place.
The long, straight stretch of Gardeners Road that runs through Rosebery has houses on one side and shops on the other. Mid-way along the shopping strip is a building much grander in scale than the rest, though now dilapidated: a former cinema with a wide, neo-classical facade. The cinema was called the Marina for most of the time it was operating, but I think of the building as Videomania, after the vertical sign that hangs from the roof, from its latter days as a video store.
Every time I approach Videomania I expect it to have been demolished, and while it does change in minor ways – a mural painted down the side of it in the mid-2010s, and more recently, the front awning removed – it marks the ebb of the years with its rust and peeling paint, resistant so far to redevelopment, though surely not for too much longer. Every few years I stop to take a photo of it, thinking it will be the last one.
This time when I stop I make sure to inspect it closely. On the facade the seashell rendering makes up part of a scuffed canvas, along with bill posters ripped back to reveal their previous layers, and the recessed remains of the marquee above the entrance. Down the side of the building, by the fading spraypainted pink panther emerging from the green snarl of a tag, is a side door with a KEEP OUT notice on it. The door is padlocked but there’s a wide enough hole where a chain’s been threaded through for me to look inside to the cavernous interior. The seats are gone but otherwise its reasonably intact: the stage with its long curtain pulled back, the proscenium arch, the red-painted ceiling. The flutter and coo of pigeons resounds from within. At the far end are signs from its video store days, an arrow pointing to the Greek movies section, the rates for hiring new releases and weeklies.
Gardeners Road is something of a time capsule, from the days before shopping malls and big box retailers. Despite the number of empty stores, their attrition no doubt hastened by the pandemic, there are some that have been there for decades. One such business is Mr Yawn’s mattress shop, which has plastic-wrapped mattresses lashed to the front doors and various versions of its mattress mascot on display.
For many years, passing by Mr Yawn’s, I had wondered why it seemed so familiar. Then it came to me: I remembered the blue, yawning mattress with outstretched arms from the frequent airings of tv ads for Mr Yawn that broadcast when I was a teenager. In them Mr Yawn – embodied by a person wearing a mattress with a yawning face as a costume – would describe the features and specials in a tone of somnolent excitement. The ads usually featured Mr Yawn on the footpath outside the store on Gardeners Road frantically waving his arms to attract attention.
There has been no such media exposure for Giacco’s Shoe Repairs, which trades in an intriguing combination of giant amethyst geodes and shoelaces. When I pass by it is closed, but I peer in through the door at the rows of geodes that flank the counter, trying to figure out the connection between shoe repair and crystals. I’m not saying there needs to be one. When I lived beside Parramatta Road in the 1990s I’d often go by a shop with a sign for “tobacconist and jeanery”, which seemed like an invitation to imagine other such unlikely combinations.
At the western end of the shops is Sam’s MFC supermarket, with a wall of cans of olive oil in the window, priced with a flutter of taped-on paper labels. Inside the smell of olives and spices encloses me, aromatic and comforting, and I browse amid the vats of olives, dry goods and massive bags of spices for a while, wondering if I would manage to consume 6kg of cinnamon even across my whole lifetime.
Further along the street I look in on the Evergreen Spot milk bar, with its melamine booth seats and perspex menu board, sizzle from the fryers, and ‘cash only’ notices in prominent positions.
Usually I only see the exteriors of these places, from the windows of a car or a bus, on my way east or west. This section of the road is so straight and flat that it has the effect of a roll of film or a series of pages, and my attention moves smoothly from one shop or house to the next. Sometimes I look out at the shop side, other times the house side. The houses are on the north side of the street, bungalows on wide blocks with bore water signs in their gardens, a reminder of the flows of groundwater that underlie this land, as water drains towards Kamay to the south.
If it’s night when I’m making this journey it’s hard to discern much in the dark, but I look for Arida’s International Fruit Market, which is the only shop beside the takeaways that stays open late. It’s like a lamp lighting up the nighttime, glowing with fluorescent light and the displays of fruit and vegetables in the interior.
But today as I walk along Gardeners Road it’s bright with spring sunlight, and I can see all of the details clearly.
Outside Eastlakes Shopping Centre Santa Claus is telling jokes to the construction workers, who are sitting resting under the plane trees that shade the entrance. He’s been on a circuit of the centre: waving to the people buying scratch lottery tickets in the newsagency and the men sitting in their permanent, coffee-drinking positions outside ‘Healthy Alternative’, the cafe at the front of the shopping centre.
I’m at Healthy Alternative too, but sitting inside, looking out through the letters of the slogan painted on the window – Gourmet Takeaway By Day, The Best Pizza By Night – as I eat my “Birth of Venus” sandwich. The cafe has a Renaissance theme, the chalkboards decorated with iconic artworks of the period given a sandwich-and-pizza twist. In the Sistine-Chapel-ceiling Creation scene God hands Adam a slice of pizza. On the adjacent board Michelangelo’s David holds a sandwich he has just taken a bite out of. On the chalkboard listing the drinks, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man grasps a beverage in each of his four hands.
The construction site I can see across the road used to be an additional section of the shopping centre, until it was demolished earlier this year in the first stage of the redevelopment plan. The main Eastlakes Shopping Centre, this perfect 1980s time capsule, has a reprieve until 2019. New slick signs have appeared at the entrance, promising “A fresh start. A new opportunity”, paired with an image of a pair of brown leather shoes, a camera, watch and belt. This must be the garb of the corporate giant responsible.
Eastlakes Shopping Centre wears this slick image like an uncomfortable uniform. Despite the surface changes, and inside the addition of brocade armchairs and feature walls of imitation greenery, Eastlakes is a trip back in time. The centre was built in 1964 as The Lakes shopping centre, along with the red brick apartment buildings and public housing blocks that surround it, on land that was previously Rosebery Racecourse. The suburb itself is built on the Kamaygal land to the north of Botany Bay: half of it is former swampland that was, for a century, the source of the city’s water supply. Now the dams are ponds within the Eastlakes golf course, on the other side of Southern Cross Drive, which slices through the centre of the suburb.
The shopping centre holds the 1980s like a genie in a bottle. The soundtrack, piped throughout, is a continuous blend of 1980s favourites: “Drive” by The Cars, or “Missing You” by John Waite, or “With or Without You” by U2, or “Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt or any other over-produced, atmosphere-and-synthesiser drenched song you could name. With the mood suitably set, you are then ready to follow the path set out by the floor tiles, a contrasting pattern of brown linoleum which zigzags out every five metres.
The zigzag path leads through Eastlakes’ collection of delicatessens, speciality grocers, bargain stores, and businesses that have changed little for thirty, some fifty, years. At the back of the centre is Super Scissors, an 80s time capsule of primary-coloured shelving, the window guarded by pictures of women with short, angular hairstyles and icy looks.
Despite its sparse decoration, whenever I’ve been passed Super Scissors there’s a haircut-in-progress, and someone waiting on the bench underneath a joke plaque: “sorry to keep you waiting but we are a bit tied up”, with a cartoon of a man tightly bound in many loops of rope, baring his teeth like an angry horse.
On the way to Super Scissors is a row of claw machines, with toys and chocolate bars trapped inside. There also used to also be a weighing scale which offered a ticket printed with your weight and an inspirational quote. The public weigh-scale is an under-utilised contraption, the kind I feel an innate sympathy for. When I took pity on it I felt self conscious slipping my shoes off and standing on the scale to await the result, but I was rewarded by a quote from Voltaire.
Now it has been replaced by a smaller, digital equivalent, parked beside the chamber of fun-size bars in the Chocolate Factory machine.
Eastlakes shopping centre is a busy place, irrespective of its time-capsule nature. I wonder if, in part, this is because it’s comfortable: worn-in and familiar, an extension of home. Groups of men sit for hours on the brocade chairs, worry beads in their hands, continuing a daily conversation that has spanned years. Before the enhancement of the lounge chairs they’d sat on the benches outside the supermarket and had the same discussions.
Underneath the social ecosystem of Eastlakes Shopping Centre I notice its slow transition into the 21st century. Mostly this means the removal of signs and contraptions: The Super Flipp marble pinball game outside the BKK Supermarket (BKK was the centre’s former name) is gone, for example, as are the video stores.
The Florist sign – a match for Elizabeth Bay Deli – with its curling font and seven digit phone number, has been replaced although the pink and blue teddy bears still watch on from the shelf at the back of the store.
Also replaced is the Eastlakes Sausage, which the deli retired a few years ago in favour of more contemporary signage.
Much, however, has stayed the same. The tiny office of the tax accounts has its framed certificates on the cinder block walls and rows of filing cabinets, as ever.
For clothing, although Jox and Sox is gone, there is still Trendy of Eastlakes.
In the west wing of the centre is the sugary island that is Super Donuts.
And, around the corner from Super Donuts is Unik Fashion and Junior Wear, with its window display of children’s formal clothes, tiny wedding dresses and suits like adult dreams shrunk into miniature.
Things will change slowly here until they change quickly. But I don’t want to think too closely about it; to me Eastlakes is beautiful just as it is.
Santa Claus is back on his throne now, outside of Budget Beaters discount supermarket, and a crying baby is being lifted onto his lap. What’s his name? Santa asks. “Noah,” his mum replies. As I watch her holding her phone out to take a selfie of the three of them, I imagine a future, adult Noah looking at this photo. It’s Christmas in 2040 and places like Eastlakes Shopping Centre are long-gone. The city has been remade. But its old places are held here and there, in snippets, in memories.
Elizabeth Bay Road ends in a loop around which is a crown of apartment buildings, some grand, some plain. The more elegant of them were built in the 1930s, like the nine-storey, art deco Adereham Hall, a tall building with a concertina shape like folding screen. It catches the afternoon light like it is a sunbeam solidified, starburst motifs spreading out above its doorways and windows.
At the other end of the loop is its modernist counterpart, an apartment building named Deepdene. The side of it which faces the road is rounded like a giant pipe, and curved walls emerge behind it. Built in the 1970s, the building’s form was based on an observatory in Potsdam, Germany, known as the Einstein Tower because it was constructed to make observations to test his theory of relativity. Its Sydney counterpart is dedicated to luxury: despite the building’s size there are only four exclusive, double-storey apartments inside.
Elizabeth Bay is a gallery of twentieth-century apartment buildings, containing everything from studio apartments with ugly grey trodden-down carpet and views onto the wall of the building next door to elegant penthouses with verandahs that open out onto the harbour. Simon and I pause outside the gates to Kincoppal, one of these luxury complexes built in the 1970s. Through the gate we can see the apartment building rising up behind the 1868 house built for merchant John Hughes. Hughes gave it the name Kincoppal, which means “horse head” in Gaelic, after a horse head shaped rock formation near the water’s edge.
But it’s not Hughes, nor horses, that has directed us here: it’s David Bowie. In the 1980s he owned an apartment in Kincoppal, to which he returned for regular Sydney visits throughout the decade, until he sold it in 1992. We peer through the fence, imagining Bowie checking his mailbox at the gold anodised aluminium mailboxes that look like a wall of gold bricks. This is the only detail of the building we can see beyond the trees and landscaping. Like many homes of the very rich, the entrance gives little away. A congested garden of palm trees and a tall bunya pine screens the buildings from the road.
Overlaid on this moment – a Sunday afternoon, people going back and forth from their cars with grey plastic supermarket bags or luggage from a weekend away – is the otherworldly thought of David Bowie stepping out from the Kincoppal gates. Would he even have gone out for a walk, I wondered, not quite able to reconcile his superstardom with such a mundane activity. But it seems he did, according to musician and Bowie-aficionado Jeff Duff. In one of the “Bowie in Australia” articles that appeared after Bowie’s death in 2016 he was quoted: “He was very hard to recognise,” Duff said, “he was very casually, normally dressed, a dude wandering around in Elizabeth Bay, nothing stood out about him apart from that he was a very handsome man.”
We wander away from the gates, follow the loop back down towards Greenknowe Avenue. Hanging from the awning beside the row of shops on the corner of Ithica Road is a sign for the Elizabeth Bay Deli: DELI in curling script beside an illustration of a cheese and a salami and some lovingly-detailed black olives.
The shop is one of those stores that has at least one of everything. Whether you need a glue stick, a banana, a container of Bacon Bits or a box of incense, you’ll find it in there somewhere. Maybe it’s just because Bowie is in my head, but there’s grocery items in here I haven’t noticed again since the 1980s. Apricot nectar in a can. Cottees Ice Magic. Pecks Paste. The spices are the same brand I remember from our pantry in the 80s, Molly McKenzie, presented in round plastic bottles with brown lids.
I lurk behind the crisps, imagining Bowie at the counter, politely buying a packet of Marlboro Lights or maybe a box of juice. The Elizabeth Bay Deli has these items and more.
Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
Before the eastern suburbs railway was built Edgecliff was a place of 19th century mansions, tin-roof terraces and steep, grassy vacant lots. It was a place to look back at the city, across valleys and ridges lined with haphazard rows of houses. Then the Eastern Suburbs railway opened in 1979, and with it came the Edgecliff Centre, a hulk of an office building that presides over the hillside.
The line of flags on its roof gives it an ambassadorial presence, although most enter the centre only to leave again. They descend to the train station or ascend to the grim, grey bus interchange.
Like much of Sydney there’s a sense of things having been ripped-up and replaced here. The streets retain their eccentric twists, preserving a sense of the topography that underlies them, but on the surface its a miscellany. Across from the Edgecliff Centre is a collection of art deco apartment buildings with names like Knightsbridge, San Remo and Ruskin.
The courtyard between them is a domain of neatly clipped camellia bushes and warnings not to park there. Beside the apartment buildings are a set of grand sandstone gates, once belonging to the Glenrock estate, now to a school. It is 3 o’clock when I walk by and schoolgirls are pouring out like ants from a nest.
On this stretch of street are shops selling niche items for a comfortable life. Cellos, chandeliers. A pilates studio has piles of white exercise balls in the window like giant pearls. In an ex-bank on the corner of Darling Point Road is JOM photography (at its former premises, above what was once Darrell Lea in the city, JOM made a bold claim with a prescient feature photograph).
Across from the row of smiling headshots is a monumental bus shelter with columns and steps and well maintained paintwork. The shelter is atop the high side of Darling Point Road, at the edge of the wall that divides the road. At its entrance is the name “Governor Ralph Darling”, in memory of the unpopular 1820s governor whose amorous name is imprinted on suburb names and roads across the city.
Inside a series of alcoves are recessed into the wall, like empty shrines, behind a wooden bench painted with the insignia of Sydney buses. Outside though, the bus stop sign is covered over with a garbage bag , with a message below announcing the 327 bus no longer stops here.
Now it is decommissioned the bus shelter is free to be the hilltop citadel it has always secretly been. I peer around the side of it, watching the storm clouds moving over the city in curls of grey and the traffic surging up the hill. From here the city seems a separate entity, neatly enclosed by its assortment of high-rise buildings, and the traffic an anxious, noisy river.
The citadel was created in 1925 when New South Head Road was widened, to reduce the steep grade of the hill. The dividing of the road created a broad concrete wall, a long bunker with a recess at the corner. Here the painted lady, has been through hundreds of repainted reincarnations since she first appeared in 1991. The wall is thick with layers of paint, embedded with glitter stars and confetti. Today it asks “Will you marry me Ingela?” of the traffic passing by.
Further along the wall is a square inset with windows and a door, the entrance to underground Edgecliff, a series of twisting caverns, a complete underground city where giant pearls and cellos and chandeliers are made… A tantalising thought, but when I stand up on tiptoes to peer in the slats I glimpse pipes and the top of a toilet tank and the true purpose of this room becomes disappointingly clear.
The weird geometry of this corner, with its bus shelter citadel, has long captured my attention. As a child I’d look out for it as we made the long drive to visit my great aunts in the eastern suburbs. Its grey edifice seemed important, like it held the secrets of this other side of the city with its steep streets, grand buildings, and tall fig trees. There was no painted lady then, just concrete and I perhaps misremember there being a line from a Smiths song painted across the wall. Perhaps it was actually there, or perhaps I just imagined it there when I dragged my gaze across the wall, as the car passed it by.
New South Head Road winds down the hill from Edgecliff, past a trio of derelict mansions with smashed windows and boarded-up gates, soon to be a new development, and rows of art deco apartment buildings.
At the bottom of the hill the traffic slows as it passes through the shopping centre of Double Bay. It’s a fairly predictable collection of local shops from assorted eras, early twentieth century shops with awnings, 1960s arcades, a few newer buildings here and there. All goes along as expected until the corner of Knox St.
Architect: Willy Wonka. Surely Sydney’s most bizarre bank building, the Double Bay branch of the National Australia bank has long operated from this conundrum. Every time I pass by it becomes something else in my imagination: a bath toy, a plastic comb, a kitchen implement, a cartoon castle. Bank architecture usually favours the solid square and dependable. Bank buildings give off the message that your money is safe inside. But not at Double Bay. Here the bank building gives the impression that at any moment a flood of banknotes may come shooting out the funnel at the top.
Back in the 1960s, the precursor to the National Australia Bank, the CBC Bank, operated at this location from a much more sensible sandstone and tile premises.
But as the 60s turned to the 70s, and Double Bay became the place to buy garish floor-length gowns in psychedelic patterns, it was decided that the ladies needed a futuristic bank to match their outfits.
They were already at the forefront of banking technology: Sydney’s first automatic teller machine accessible after hours from the street was installed at the Double Bay CBC. This video explains how the “instant cash” machines were to work. (Watch for Ian’s look of terror at 1:03. Also youtube has the wrong date, the footage is from the ABC in 1969.)
Last week, after I drove down the hill past the abandoned mansions and into Double Bay, I noticed something had changed at the bank.
The exterior was stripped of its NAB signs, and inside it was filled up to the windows with parcels wrapped in brown paper. The parcels were of all shapes and sizes, like oversized Christmas presents. At first I thought they might be the furniture from the bank but on closer inspection they were the contents of a house. The parcels were annotated with their contents: “floor lamp son’s bedroom”, “2 wooden chairs Dining Room”, “coffee table”, and stickers declaring them to have been shipped from Athens.
Sydney is dotted with ex-banks, solid buildings now occupied by anything and everything from chicken shops to gyms, yoga studios and day spas. But the fate of Sydney’s most bizarre bank building is still uncertain.
Across the city are the solitary remains of grand buildings and structures. They stand like sentinels as the city grows and changes around them, memorials that mark forgetting as much as remembrance. They’re lonely things, firmly planted in places that either you’d not expect or not notice.
At Bradley’s Head in Mosman is one such stranded memorial, a column positioned in the shallow waters just off the headland. Once it supported the portico of the Sydney General Post Office, one of six Doric columns added in the 1840s to enhance the grandeur of the building. When it was demolished in 1868, to be replaced by the palatial new GPO building which still stands at the corner of Martin Place, the columns were sold and sent off to varied fates.
In 1888 the Illustrated Sydney News described how the columns had been moved to the harbour as steering guides for ships: “The glistening white obelisks can be seen towering above the surrounding foliage, and one after another come into view as a vessel, entering the heads, steers up channel. One of these pillars occupies a very conspicuous situation on the low water rocks running out from Bradley’s Head.”
As curious a thought as it is to imagine a procession of Doric columns along the harbour, the majority of references to the columns trace them thus: one at Bradley’s Head used as a distance marker (one nautical mile from Fort Denison), another at North Sydney, used as a north marker for telescopes from the Observatory, and two (or three, depending on the source) others made into gateposts for the mansion “Melrose” near Centennial Park, then Vaucluse House.
The Bradley’s Head column has a marooned look, rising up from the harbour waters, like it is the victim of some kind of accident of time travel between ancient Greece and the present day. The days of its use in sea trials – testing newly built vessels for seaworthiness – are past, and now it stands as a counterpoint to the city, an exiled fragment.
One of its siblings can be found in a much busier location, in the Mount Street Plaza at North Sydney.
It is on a plinth at the end of the pedestrianised mall, where people sit on benches eating lunch, and on the day I visited, a man at an improvised stall takes advantage of the newly released Star Wars film, and spruiks light sabres (and silk ties – the perfect office combination) for $5 each.
A plaque on the base of the column traces its journey, from the GPO on George Street in the city, to the grounds of Crows Nest House, then Bradfield Park under the Harbour Bridge.
In 1988 the construction of the Harbour Tunnel saw the column move to its current location, and it is now destined to move yet again. As of 2013 Mount Street Plaza has been renamed Brett Whiteley Place, and there are plans to replace the column with a reproduction of the Whiteley artwork ‘Totem’ – an egg atop a pole (but not atop the column). The column has an uncertain fate, beyond its relocation to an as yet unspecified location. The fate of the donut fountains in the centre of the plaza has also been debated. They were designed by Robert Woodward, who made his name with one of Sydney’s best known fountains, the dandelion-shaped El Alamein in Kings Cross. The donuts are a meditative presence in the plaza, with the water spilling and trickling in and out of them – and they seem apposite in this zone of fast food shops and lunch breaks.
At Bradley’s Head the interpretive panel had described the fate of three more of the columns: “Three columns were made into the gateposts for a house, Melrose, on Old South Head Road opposite Centennial Park. Later they were moved to Vaucluse House. The whereabouts of these columns are now unknown.”
No they are not – here they are! Cut down from their original height for use as gateposts, and with one missing, but the columns nonetheless.
These columns mark the eastern entrance to Cooper Park in Bellevue Hill, high on the hill above stone steps that lead into the fern gully of the park below. Etched in one is the name “Melrose”, and on the other, a metal plaque announcing the “Stone columns (3) originally formed part of the General Post Office”. The whereabouts of the third column (and the one extra that has no trace, that made up the six) is still a mystery – keep an eye out for stray Doric columns as you go about.
Gateposts are often the only remaining parts of demolished grand homes and can be found planted here and there around the suburbs, often transposed from their original location. In the 19th century Annandale House, the home of the Johnston family, was a landmark of the area, and upon its demolition in 1905, the newspapers lamented its disappearance: “a matter for never-ending regret”, “a thousand pities”.
The gates to Annandale House are now in the grounds of the Annandale Public School, in between the boundary fence and the playground.
They were moved here in 1977 after being rediscovered in a council depot after decades of use at Liverpool Showground. I peer through the fence at them. Each block has patterns chipped into it, vermiculated detailing carved to suggest a worm-eaten pattern, a popular style in the death and decay-obsessed Victorian era. The sandstone wears the stains and erosion from the atmosphere, and the marks of the masons who long ago shaped it into blocks.
Another set of relocated gates are at Richardson’s Lookout in Marrickville, which once were in the grounds of The Warren, a Victorian Gothic mansion built in 1857 for businessman Thomas Holt.
The name comes from the rabbits which Holt had brought in for hunting on his estate, which also included such exotic imports as alpacas (though presumably not for hunting). The house was a mixture of castle and homestead, equally grand and eccentric and Holt shaped his estate as a kind of pleasure-ground, with a Turkish bath and landscaped gardens. After Holt returned to England The Warren became a nunnery, and then a military training camp, before being demolished in 1919.
The pillars were placed on the hilltop above the Cooks River in 1968 and stand there like two skinny castles among the grassy expanse of the park. When I visit them I find a group of kids clustered around them, using the rough edges of the sandstone blocks as hand and footholds to climb them. One boy is particularly good at it and gets two thirds of the way up, until the smooth upper section prevents him from reaching the top.
Other stranded gateposts have been more recently abandoned, like those that once held the sign to Luna Park on Alfred Street in Milsons Point.
The sign was constructed in the 1930s by Luna Park and went through a number of different designs: the one I most remember being “Welcome to North Sydney” which I’d look for from up on high as the train approached Milsons Point station. While these columns haven’t been moved around, they do appear rather lonely, the proposed restoration of the sign stalled since 2004, perhaps forgotten.
Once I got to thinking about it there are plenty of stranded columns or stones around the city. The walls and gates from demolished grand houses in Darling Point still form the boundaries of apartment buildings, here and there you might come across an old milestone (for the location of these consult the comprehensive: Discovering Australia’s Historical Milemarkers and Boundary Stones by Robert and Sandra Crofts).
Of all of them, my favourite resting place for stranded stones is at the edge of the Botanic Gardens, on a hill sloping down from the Cahill Expressway, the area known as the Tarpeian Way. Here bits and pieces of city buildings and structures lie half-buried in the grass.
This is an artwork, called “Memory is Creation Without End” by Kimio Tsuchiya, constructed in 2000. Despite knowing this the fallen stones and columns appear to have been organically, rather than deliberately, placed. This quiet spot at the city’s edges has the tall buildings of the present-day city rising up in the background. But here fragments of the Sydney of the past sink and settle into the earth. These pieces form their own discontinuous story, created in the thoughts of those who wander among them.
When I started Mirror Sydney in 2012 it was with a love for the lesser-known place and stories of the city and suburbs. These exist in endless numbers, far too many of them to know or capture comprehensively. From the infinite number of minor Sydney stories, this is one of my favourites.
In 1939 Sydney had a shortage of onions. A period of drought had affected the Victorian crop, and in order to fulfil the demand for the 20, 000 tonnes of onions consumed by the city every year, imports became necessary. Most of the imported onions came by boat from Japan or Egypt.
One of the shipments of onions from Egypt arrived in July 1939. They had been on a longer than expected journey as the ship they were originally transported on, the Aagtekerk, had run aground off the Indian coast. Another ship, the Algenib, took the cargo, including the 8000 bags of onions, and continued on to Australia.
By the time the Algenib arrived in Fremantle, something was wrong with the onions. Many had become “rotten and pulpy” and “gave off an offensive stench”. In Fremantle the dock workers refused to dispose of the more rotten of the onions unless they received higher pay, a request that was grudgingly granted. With the most rotten of the onions disposed of, the shipment continued to Sydney.
By the time the ship reached Sydney the remaining onions were rotting. The Newcastle Sun reported the arrival of the Algenib into Sydney and passengers hurrying away from the ship, which smelt like a “fermenting pickle factory”. What was to be done with the 400 tonnes of condemned onions?
Penguin Ltd. salvage company came to the rescue. In 1939 they had bought five obsolete warships which they were in the process of stripping and preparing to scuttle outside the Sydney Heads. One of these ships, the Stalwart, was ready to be towed out to sea and wrecked, and so it was decided that the ship and the onions would be sunk together.
The bags of onions were stacked onto the Stalwart, piled up in the mess hall, stuffed into the cabins and packed around the funnel. Before dawn on July 22st the Stalwart was towed out from Darling Harbour by two of Penguin Ltd’s tugboats, towards the ship graveyard off the coast of Sydney. 20 miles out from Sydney Heads the seacocks were opened and a the ship detonated, sinking with its odorous cargo to the sea floor below.
This, everyone thought, was the last of the onions.
Two weeks later, on the morning of August 3rd, Maroubra locals were greeted with an unusual sight. Onions were washing up on the beach, thousands of them, and piling up on the shore. The Commonwealth Health Department were in dismay, as a year earlier they’d performed a test to chart how far debris needed to be dumped to prevent it returning to shore. The onions were more persistant than the red sticks the Health Department had used in their test and had, with the assistance of strong north-east winds, returned.
“Onions washed ashore” reported the Sydney Morning Herald, “fears for other beaches”. Coogee and Bondi residents readied themselves for the onion tide. Back in Maroubra people were salvaging the best of the onions for sale: there was still an onion shortage at the time, after all. The Department of Health declared that, if the onions were in good condition, they could be legally traded.
One of the more unusual sights on Maroubra beach today is the large Rubiks cube painted on a concrete block above the stormwater drain outlet. As delightful as it is, perhaps there could have been a more historically appropriate object chosen as a beach decoration.
My Sculpture by the Sea entry for next year, dear readers.
In 1906 Miss Bury of Leichhardt received a postcard from her frequent correspondent H.A.B. It was a black and white illustration of South Reef at Sydney Heads, the full moon shining across the sea. “Hope you are taking advantage of fine weather” H.A.B had written underneath. Miss Bury had already received a card of waves crashing onto rocks at Coogee with a similar message: “If fine, why not take a run out to this place?”
The postcards arrived at Miss Bury’s house in Leichhardt and brought with them the ocean and the full moon, clear nights and the sound of the waves. Their inscriptions, to someone reading them more than 100 years later, are enigmatic. They are easy to read as romantic suggestions, but are not necessarily so. Whatever innuendo they contain is a mystery.
To take advantage of fine weather and visit the sea Miss Bury would first have to catch the tram along Parramatta Road into the city, where she would change for another tram to the coast. Sydney in 1906 was the Victorian city of awnings and railings, horses and carts, everyone wearing a hat, the streets busy. It was a new century and Australia had been declared a federation only a few years earlier. The city was constantly changing. Central station, with its grand concourse, had just opened. This video of Sydney in 1906, filmed from a tram moving along George Street, shows the criss-cross paths of pedestrians – men in suits, women in long dresses – as they make their way in between the trams (I particularly like the cyclist).
To get to South Head involved a long tram trip to Watson’s Bay along New South Head Road, following the inner edge of the headland. It was a sightseeing journey with views of the harbour and grand houses, past Barracluff’s ostrich farm at Diamond Bay and then ending at the ocean cliffs. Nearby day-trip attractions had sprung up, tea rooms and the octagonal building which housed a camera obscura in Gap Park (to be closed down in 1914 for fears that spies would use it to examine the military fortifications of South Head).
People travelled here for a sense of distance from the city. Here they could turn their backs on it and look out across the endless ocean. This was the point where most of them or their ancestors had arrived in Sydney. Of the two promontories known as the Heads, South Head is further inside the harbour. Ships travelling into Sydney would have rounded south head first, as they arrived from the south. Until passenger flights became commonplace in the 1950s the Heads were the symbolic, as well as the physical, entrance to Sydney. This, and the element of the sublime in the rough cliffs and ocean outlook, made them a common postcard feature in the 19th century.
It is a sunny November day. The streets look fresh with the pale green of spring leaves and the mauve heads of jacaranda trees. Though it is more than a century after H.A.B’s message, taking advantage of fine weather is still a good suggestion. This Miss Berry, following Miss Bury, decides she will take advantage with a run out to South Head. I set out in the car, following the hills and curves through Double Bay and Rose Bay until I reach Watson’s Bay at the end of the road.
The path that leads to South Reef begins at Camp Cove. Near the beach there is a lengthy information panel with a timeline of the area, beginning 220 million years ago in the Triassic period when layers of sediment accumulated to make the sandstone which forms the Sydney basin. 220 million years ago the earth’s landmass was one supercontinent, its giant fern forests roamed by dinosaurs. As I ponder this people stroll past, guys with an esky and a tambourine, towels draped over their shoulders, on their way to the beach. Cars crawl along Cliff Street, in search of parking spots. The wooden cottage on the corner, its white paint peeling, has a garden planted with mother-in-law’s-tongue and a gnarled frangipani tree.
A more neighbourly 6000 years ago the Birrabirragal people lived here, fishing in the waters of what was to be named Camp Cove. Their life here continued without rupture until the first fixed date on the timeline: 21st January 1788. After this day, time and the land becomes increasingly divided up. The timeline goes on to list the headland’s many uses, by whalers and the military, the construction of a marine biology station, a lighthouse. Then the tourist age: cottages, a swimming hole, tea rooms, trams. The tourist era continues. People are at the beach writing postcards and sunbaking, or walking the headland path, pausing to look at the view and take photos at the cliff edge.
The path begins at the end of the beach and follows the shape of the headland. On either side are thickets of lantana and morning glory with desire paths cut through them leading to the cliff. There are danger signs, a cartoon figure slipping off the crumbling edge, but these often go unheeded. A group of girls in bikinis and towels squeeze past one large danger sign and its warning of serious injury, in search of an uninterrupted view.
Between the huge sandstone boulders on the other side of the path is a stone wall with gaps in the bricks for rifles. Nearby is a shiny black cannon mounted in a concrete well, pointing in the direction of the harbour and the city beyond. From here the city looks small, a tracing of vertical shapes against the sky. I think of the most recent of Tony Abbott’s stupid statements, this one delivered to David Cameron in celebration of Sydney’s English heritage. “As we look around this glorious city…it’s hard to think that back in 1788 it was nothing but bush”. Looking at it from the gun’s point of view, the city looks tenuous and its the wide stretch of harbour water and the zigzag shoreline of the bays and headlands that are the glorious thing. Sandstone boulders rise up like whales from the grass. Wrens hop between the branches of the lantana.
After 1788 the vegetation was cleared from the headland and for a long time it had a bald look, traced with fortifications. In the early days of the colony it was from this headland that people would stare hopefully out to sea, looking for boats that might bring food or news from the rest of the world. They were looking out for invaders, too, and over time the headland became pock-marked with gun emplacements, circular concrete wells sunk into the sandstone. The natural sandstone and the concrete blocks of the fortifications meld into a patchwork.
The track continues, past Lady Bay below. For decades this has been a nudist beach and was officially declared so by Neville Wran in 1976. The beach is visible from the path above; an English family make jokes about averting their eyes as they peer downwards. Men are stretched out on the rocks alongside the beach, sunbaking and chatting and smoking. On the other side of the path is the naval base and here is another group of men sitting smoking, although these ones have their clothes on, and are turned away from the water to face the utilitarian buildings of the base.
The path emerges from the shrubs at the lighthousekeeper’s cottage. Around from it is the red and white striped lighthouse, built after the wreck of the Dunbar in 1857. Everyone on the Dunbar perished, most of them wealthy Sydney residents returning home after a trip to London, apart from one deckhand, James Johnson. He spent three days on a rock ledge, with the debris and bodies from the wreck washed up on the rocks below. For days after the wreck, “hats, bonnets, boots, hams and drums of figs floated in the waves”. Eventually Johnson was rescued by an Icelandic man who was lowered down from the cliffs above by a rope.
James Johnson, after recovery from his ordeal, became the first lighthousekeeper. The lighthouse, painted red and white like a candy-cane, is a cheerful structure. It has long been sealed up as the light operates automatically, but I climb up its external stairs and look out to seafrom the top of them. I can see the view from H.A.B.’s postcard, the rocks of the reef with the waves crashing against them and North Head in the distance, stretching into the ocean. In between the heads a few sailboats are out, catching the wind. It’s a strong wind straight off the sea and it whips my hair around my face and flutters the pages of the notebook a woman, lying on the grass below, is writing in.
I return to the track and cut through one of the desire paths through the brambles and lantana. It’s just wide enough to avoid scratching my legs and I step through it carefully. At the end is a big flat rock above the reef and I sit here watching the men fishing down below and the family standing on the rock platform taking a photo with the ocean behind them. The edge is irresistable and for all its dangers, people have an urge to get as close as they can to the place where the elements switch and the land turns to ocean. Near me, at the very edge of the cliff a metal ring sunk into a section of concrete has a cluster of engraved padlocks attached to it. I strain to read the inscriptions: “Steph, you have made me the happiest man on earth. Will you marry me?”
H.A.B., whoever they were to Miss Bury, did not end up as her husband. She married an A.N.W. in 1917. But I like to think that on a fine day Miss Bury and H.A.B. might have caught the tram to Watson’s Bay and looked out over the ocean together. The closest they would have got was The Gap lookout, rather than the reef pictured on the postcard. In 1906 this headland was a fortification, a military area with guns at regular intervals along the clifftop.
The pits and tunnels of the concrete emplacements remain, now places to clamber into and scratch messages into the cement. Most of the tunnels end in bricked-up walls or gaps too narrow to pass through, although beyond them is a network of tunnels, rooms and bunkers which connect up with the naval base. The entrances have mostly been closed off, but I find one door with a view into a gloomy series of rooms. Like the concrete of the gun emplacement above, there are names and sets of initials scratched into them. Alert for coincidence, I look for a H.A.B., but there is no match.
The track loops around and I return to Camp Cove. As I pass by the kiosk a man is asking if they sell bananas. The woman in the kiosk looks at him, unable to decode his softly spoken request, and asks “Panadol?” I totter my way over the sand until I find a place in the shade at the other end of the beach to leave my bag while I go for a swim. Unlike Miss Bury, I can go swimming wearing whatever kind of bathing suit I like (in this case, a purple one piece). I fold my t-shirt and skirt and leave them on a rock as I make for the water.
The propriety of bathing suits was a topic of great debate in the 1900s. In 1903, a law that had prohibited “daylight bathing” at Sydney beaches since 1833 was repealed. With this came arguments over appropriate swimwear. A suggested mandatory skirt for men’s costumes led to the 1907 bathing costume protests, where men wearing women’s underwear, curtains and tablecloths marched on Bondi Beach. Men didn’t want to wear a skirt to swim, but neither did women. The baggy dress and pantaloons that were acceptable 19th century women’s bathing attire made it impossible to do anything but wade. Annette Kellerman designed the first one piece swimsuit with this in mind, and following her lead by the end of the decade women were wearing the close fitting costumes known as “Kellermans”.
After swimming I sit watching the beach. Near me a group of girls in bikinis are eating strawberries. I look beyond them to a man and a woman at the water’s edge. The woman holds a stick and is using it to trace out something. The man tries to snap a photo of what she has written but she’s too close to the tide line and a wave dissolves the letters. I had seen it, though, before the water erased it, the tracing of initials into the sand.
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Further correspondence from H.A.B. to Miss Bury: see card 57.