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.
* * *
Further correspondence from H.A.B. to Miss Bury: see card 57.
I’m walking through Bondi Junction, out of the miserable bus interchange, past the entrances to the gleaming mall and into the disorder of the street on a Saturday morning. Two security guards, wearing the pained expressions of the heavily hungover, sit on a bench passing a giant bottle of orange juice between them. Couples wearing compression tights have the wholesome look of credit card ad models. A backpacker holding a budget packet of supermarket apples pauses at the corner, deciding which way to turn as people move in all directions around him.
Bondi Junction is a place I visit rarely: every area of Sydney has its own centre, and I’ve never lived in the east. But there is one place in Bondi that has been spoken about often enough to become a mythical presence in my imagination. Bondi has an extraordinary video store. People would talk about it, in those days before films went online. It was the video store that had everything, every obscure film you might ever want to see. Its name was Doctor What.
The store is crowded with shelves, the first room full of DVDs, the back room with VHS tapes. The worn blue carpet, scuffed away in places, marks the path through the genres: Action Comedy, True Story Drama, Cult. The space that’s not taken up by movies has a sign or a list attached to it, lists of films by director, films new to weekly rental, and explanatory signs about the Doctor What system of classification.
The store is busy with people browsing the shelves intently. Doctor What is closing at the end of the month and their long term customers and the city’s film buffs have come to see what treasures they can find. Unlike most other video stores Doctor What never jettisoned their VHS collection, and the back room is full of the kinds of films that have been lost to cultural memory. They are the kind of straight to video films that populated the shelves of 80s video stores, arrangements of familiar genres with a particular twist: a horror film about killer photographer called Darkroom (subtitle: “where passions develop”); a comedy about gorillagrams Send a Gorilla packaged in a heart shaped case, a horror comedy about an vampire grandfather called, naturally, Grampire.
It’s an adventure to look through Doctor What, even as the collection dwindles in the store’s final days. The video store experience is one of browsing and awaiting the unexpected, hovering around the shelves, eyes skimming over the cases. It’s also one of being inside a collection, an accumulation of countless stories. As I break the rules by stepping into the Kids Corner – there’s a sign: “No Adults unless accompanied by a child under 18 years” – I can hear the conversation from the counter as another long term customer says how it’s the end of an era.
Doctor What was one of the first video rental stores in Sydney when it opened in 1981. It’s a family run business with many loyal customers, many of whom have been coming in to say goodbye over the past few weeks and wish the owners luck as they take their business online. These conversations arise at the counter at the front of the store where the staff are stationed among computer monitors and containers of DVDs. Around them the walls are covered in movie posters and bear the marks of decades of staples and tape and pins.
Video stores are places of the recent past, a risky territory to mythologise. Such places have a value that has yet to be determined and to dwell upon their disappearance can be seen as nostalgic or conservative, especially when digital technology is involved. But no matter what, for a few decades video stores were an important part of people’s everyday lives. Every suburb had one. Generations of teenagers had their first jobs behind their counters. They were places where hours could be spent browsing, considering story after story.
Today people are browsing the shelves of Doctor What for the last time. The collection is being dispersed among the city’s movie lovers. A man goes through the VHS tapes methodically, amassing his choices in a corner. He has a hundred of them or more in an ever growing pile. Other people content themselves with a few favourite films or irresistable oddities. A David Bowie VHS tape, its plastic cover disintegrating from years of sunlight in the back room. Godzilla vs. Sea Monster. Brother from Space, a UFO encounter film “based on actual events”
Doctor What is not Sydney’s last video store and others such as Network Video in Stanmore have attained a similar reputation for their comprehensiveness. Doctor What is, however, Sydney’s most legendary video store, idiosyncratic in the way of all iconic shops with its huge collection of VHS tapes with faded covers, its cluttered atmosphere, and its own alphabet.
Blu-tacked to the internal door at the entrance to the store is a picture of Dr What himself, an Albert Einstein like cartoon man in a white coat. He appears on signs throughout the store, in different guises depending on what genre he’s representing: riding a surfboard, in the hairy hand of King Kong or with the cape and fangs of a vampire. The Doctor What on the door has been specially chosen, perhaps, for the shop’s final days. He wears a bow tie and has a flower on his lapel. In his hands are a hat and a walking stick. A tear runs down his cheek.
As well as theme parks, the 1970s was an era of themed restaurants. Revolving restaurants, theatre restaurants, and restaurants afloat on Sydney Harbour. In 1970, the Captain Cook Floating Restaurant came to Rose Bay, where it remained for almost 40 years, occasionally changing its name, to Flanagan’s Afloat, Imperial Peking Afloat, then finally Rose Bay Afloat.
In its heyday it was described as a unique “galleon” by the restaurant owners, but in the years leading up to its removal in 2007 it was described in far less complimentary terms. It was known as “the floater”, a “ tub” and “one of the harbour’s worst eyesores”.
Moored at Lyne Park in Rose Bay, the restaurant was a hard sight to miss when travelling along New South Head Road. “Galleon” was always an optimistic term for the three level floating structure, made of fibreglass and steel, which more resembled a gigantic bath toy.
In 1973 the restaurant became Flanagan’s Afloat, one of a number of Flanagans fish restaurants owned by the entrepreneur Oliver Shaul. Shaul had strong ideas about what made a good dining experience. “People don’t go to restaurants because they are hungry,” he said in a 1973 interview, “they go out because they want to enter a make-believe world, feeling good, experiencing hospitality.”
The make-believe world of Flanagans Afloat was one in which the waitresses wore floor length skirts to match the brown velvet and gold fringed curtains. A spiral staircase connected the upper and lower decks of the restaurant. Their signature side dish, shoestring potatoes, were proudly made from exotic imported American potatoes. The restaurant was promoted to families with various gimmicks; in a popular 1976 promotion children under 12 who visited Flanagans Afloat were given a free fishing line.
The promotion was announced by Oliver Shaul in his weekly advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, a chirpy listing of the news from Flanagans restaurants and the Summit Revolving Restaurant, also owned by Shaul. As well as Flangans Afloat there were a number of city branches of Flanagans, and Flanagans Aloft in Chatswood, on the top floor of Chatswood’s first high rise building at 815 Pacific Highway. The restaurant was accessed by an external lift that travelled up the centre of the building – seeing this lift in motion obsessed me when I was a child, though I never gave much thought as to what was at the top.
Lyne Park has a history of unusual structures. For a time in the early 1970s it featured both the floating restaurant and the Flying Boat Base, a airport which had been operating since 1938. Although these days it is strange to think of an airport being located on Sydney Harbour, seaplanes made regular journeys to England, New Zealand and Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands, carrying mail, cargo and passengers.
By 1977 the Flying Boat Base had closed but Flanagan’s Afloat remained, serving up unfortunate lobsters from the tank inside the restaurant, hosting functions for groups of Japanese businessmen, and feeding hungry sailors who’d moored their boat alongside the restaurant – Shaul’s column often mentioned that diners could “cruise in and tie up alongside”.
Flanagans Afloat’s darkest moment came in 1975, when an attempted robbery resulted in the shooting murder of the night manager. But, for the most part, the 1970s were a good decade for the floating restaurant, as were the 80s, when it became a Chinese restaurant, Imperial Peking Afloat.
Eventually the make believe world of the floating restaurant became less appealing. Its name changed to Rose Bay Afloat before it closed altogether and sat empty for years, falling into disrepair and becoming the target of much unsympathetic scrutiny. A bid to convert it into a fine dining restaurant by John Singleton was rejected, plans to make it into a flying boat museum never came to be, and in 2007 the restaurant was for sale for $150 000.
In news reports of the time – which convey the desperation of what seems like everyone involved to have Rose bay Afloat removed from Lyne Park – the agents selling it complained of the many calls from daydreamers interested in converting the craft into a 3 storey houseboat. This, they stressed, was not a realistic proposition. Before the restaurant dropped out of the news there was a hopeful turn: property developer Ray Chan had offered $90 000 for it. His offer was motivated by nostalgia. He’d had his 21st birthday dinner at Flanagans, a few years after he arrived in Australia as a migrant from China.
In October 2007, Rose Bay Afloat – name still visible though the whole craft has been painted a severe shade of blue grey – was towed across the harbour to Waverton, and then relocated to Snails Bay, where it still resides. Here it is, paint chipped and signs in the window – both for sale and for lease. Apart from the occasional visit by harbour explorers it waits out its fate under little scrutiny, apart from those who live in waterfront properties nearby.
I sit at the water’s edge on Snail’s Bay, eating a vanilla paddle pop (60th anniversary edition), staring over at the floating restaurant. I too am dreaming, about the girls in long brown skirts serving mud crabs with shoestring potatoes, about the Rose Bay Afloat’s grand return to Sydney Harbour as a kitsch icon, about the day when it will be my multi-storey houseboat. It is an overcast day and the water is almost the same colour as its dark paint – the colour chosen, perhaps, to disguise it. Birds roost on the its roof. It sways gently in the steel blue water.