In 1992, the most famous house in Sydney was a suburban one: two storey, of multi-coloured brick with white shutters and a smooth, neatly mown lawn in front. People went on drives to view it, hoping they might catch a glimpse of the notorious inhabitants, an ordinary family who had come to sudden fame as the stars of Australia’s first reality tv show, Sylvania Waters.
Before the show went to air Sylvania Waters was a little-known bayside suburb on the southern, Dharawal side of Tucoerah/Georges River, between the two bridges which span the waterway. It had been constructed in the 1960s, its designers taking their inspiration from the Florida Keys as they planned its artificial islands, and lots designed to maximise their waterfront potential. The waterside land that had once been mangroves was filled in with rubble and sealed by concrete retaining walls. The houses built here were described in ads of the time as ranch-style, or ‘cape cod’, or triple-fronted bungalows, and ‘every home a waterfront (or within 100 yards of water)’.
In the credits to Sylvania Waters there’s a swooping aerial shot of the city, then a cut to the waterfront McMansions with their palm trees and boat ramps. Then we are in the Donaher’s kitchen, where Noeline and Laurie argue across the marble countertop, with its glass ashtrays and framed poster of Elvis on the wall. The show had been intended to be a real-life version of Neighbours, a co-production of the BBC and ABC that built upon the success of Australian soaps in the UK. On that account it was successful: the reality of the fractious family shocking viewers into either dismay or voyeuristic fascination. Then reality tv was a new phenomenon, and that it showed the family’s life so candidly was startling. Watching it now it still seems so, shockingly real and raw, for it was made before reality tv morphed into a performance of reality, rather than a reflection of it.
The Donahers moved out of their house in Sylvania Waters in 2003, but it looks barely any different now to how it appeared on the show. I sit in my car across from it as many others must have done in its more famous days, unsure what exactly to do apart from stare at it.
The garage doors are down, nothing stirs. I leave the car and cross the street, walk over the springy lawn with a sprinkler at the ready at the centre. Lawns are important in Sylvania Waters, as are driveways, which should be smooth and wide, and the styling of each house, which should be distinct from its neighbours.
I start walking, first along the main road, which has the houses that are ‘within 100 yards of water’, the kind of standard large brick houses that are found in the southern suburbs. Soon I come to the side-road that leads to the central artificial island, which is C-shaped and named after James Cook. It is a 1960s-version of colonialism, in which the paramount claim upon land is that it provide opportunities for leisure, within the neat demarcations of street, house, jetty and canal.
A breezeblock wall marks the point at which the road crosses to the island, and I stop beside two abandoned shopping trolleys to look out over the stretch of water and the boats moored to either side of it. Beside me is an olive tree, laden with fruit, and a green electricity box hums as I look over the rippling water and the bulky white boats.
The road connects with the island at the centre and the two arms of the C stretch in either direction. I’m halfway along one side when I realise how quiet it is. All I can hear is faraway traffic and the palm trees rustling in the brisk wind. A tarpaulin over a boat crackles (the boat’s name is ‘Mariah’). From a nearby letterbox, a plaque with the street number on it swings back and forth. An eerieness comes over me, in which I feel as if I’m walking through one of the fake towns used for nuclear tests in the 1950s. I shake it off: I’m just walking through a suburb on a weekday afternoon, when most people are at work or school. The houses, with their ostentatious architectural and landscaping details, have a still, monumental presence, their neat exteriors giving nothing away.
Occasionally I come across a scrap of trash – a sodden local paper on a driveway, or a McCafe espresso cup in the gutter – evidence of past activity. For most of the time it’s just me and the magpies, who strut over the lawns, perusing for grubs. Finally a car comes past, a prestige model with tinted windows. It pulls into a driveway and is swallowed up by a garage, the door swiftly closing after it.
Each front lawn is a gallery for ornaments, the older houses displaying wishing wells, fountains and statues, the newer ones giant urns. Out of all of these there’s one I am particularly fond of, for it is out of tune with the meticulous displays that characterise the suburb. This front yard is overgrown and cluttered. Grass and weeds grow tall and wisteria vines send out their tendrils. At the centre of all this, on a concrete plinth, is the dream that underlies this and all the houses of Sylvania Waters.
The highway curves then is straight for a stretch. The road widens here and the speed limit increases to 70, so in the rush of traffic there’s almost not enough time to notice the roadside scenes. Rows of red brick houses; the last remaining city Sizzler restaurant, with its banner advertising its salad bar and cheese toast; the marble retailer with its ragged-edged slabs stacked up like huge books. Then there’s the White Castle, rising up serenely from its asphalt surroundings.
Upon seeing the sign for White Castle, the difference between my mental image of a white castle and the reality of this building immediately flashes to mind. I imagine that once it was a fairytale castle with multiple storeys and turrets. Then one day it was melted down and squashed flat into this long box of a building, with only the name remaining as a memory of its previous identity.
In truth the White Castle building was constructed in 1970 as a Keith Lord discount furniture showroom. At the time Keith Lord was something of an innovator in terms of display and merchandising, constructing a series of striking and capacious breezeblock and colonnaded stores across Sydney. In 1970 this building was described as “ultra modern and luxurious”, stocking everything you might need to furnish your suburban home comfortably, even including features included a “sound lounge”, where shoppers could test out “stereograms” before purchase. This was an era of furnishing and nesting, of stocking suburban homes with new appliances and items such as the “buffet and hutch”, a word combination that sends me, madeleine-like, back to listening to tv ads as a child in the 1980s.
The other Keith Lord showrooms have, by now, disappeared (Ashfield – burnt out then demolished for Westconnex) or been modified to the point of obscurity (Hornsby, Kennards self storage). At the White Castle, although the building is the same, the merchandise has shifted somewhat from the sofas and dining settings that used to be sold within. Outside are banners advertising oil paintings and mirrors, giftware and porcelein, but mostly the White Castle sells kitchenware. It is the place to go if you need a 98 litre cooking pot, or a croquembouche pan, or a set of Splayds (miraculously still available).
In the 1970s and 80s Keith Lord was a place where dreams came in the form of lounge suites and refrigerators, “space age” microwave ovens and extendable dining tables. As I wander through the aisles of saucepans in White Castle, I can imagine how it would have been in here back then, testing out the brown velour couches. These couches would eventually end their life sagging in 1990s sharehouse loungerooms, but back then they were plump, their synthetic pile fresh. Shoppers moved from sofa setting to dining room package deal, from scene to scene, trialling out potential futures.
Now inside White Castle it is like a city, where the roads are the narrow rows in between high shelves of kitchen equipment. The baking pan precinct adjoins whisk row, beside the zone of bulk paper napkins. There is a serious atmosphere, no music playing in the background, just the rustle of stock being unpacked and murmurs of deliberation about paring knives or baguette pans. I go in search of the oil paintings, which are arranged into narrow corridors at one end of the store. Here I am enclosed between snow and forest scenes, with a few Napoleons en garde.
Staring at Napoleon, I can imagine a whole room around this one item in its carved wood frame. I’m having a Keith Lord moment, imagining Napoleon above the tan leather sofa, as I cue up an eight track and consider a glass of brandy…
I leave White Castle clutching my newly-purchased baking tray, walking out along under the colonnade, past the carpark palm trees and the corner window display of a Buddha head, telescope, and an advertisement for Chasseur cooking pots.
Then I’m back in the real city, or at least a suburban stretch of it, with construction cranes decorating the horizon, and across the road real estate signs offering the whole block for sale, a “unique” development opportunity, the likes of which there seems to be more and more.
Most Sydney suburbs have some kind of public clock. There are the clocks atop of old post office or council buildings, there are clock tower monuments, there are less intentional civic timepieces, wall clocks in shops at the right angle to be visible to people passing by. Although almost everyone carries the time with them on phones or, for the traditionalists, a watch, there’s something unifying about a civic clock. The clock face draws our attention. We glance at the angle of the hands and for that moment are connected to a public sense of time. Even if, in the case of some suburban clocks, that time is a constant midnight or 3:45.
The most well known of Sydney’s suburban clocks is a relatively recent addition: the Oatley clock. Constructed in 1983 for the suburb’s 150th anniversary, it commemorates James Oatley, Sydney’s first clockmaker. In 1814 Oatley was found guilty of stealing two feather mattresses and for this was sent to Australia, where he would be soon pardoned and become the city’s first Keeper of Clocks. In 1833 Oatley was granted an area of forest in south Sydney, which he called Needwood Forest and which later became the suburb of Oatley.
150 years later crowds filled the Oatley streets as the new Oatley clock, housed in a brick tower in the centre of Frederick Street, was inaugurated. The Oatley Clock Festival was the culmination of months of celebrations which had included many events, among them a family bush dance, a Pageant of Bridal Gowns, bus tours of Oatley and a regatta on the Georges River near the Oatley Pleasure Grounds. Of all clocks in Sydney, the coming of the Oatley clock must surely have attracted the greatest celebration.
Since the festival in 1983 the clock has been the centrepiece of Oatley, although the annual Clock Festival has since changed its name to the Village Festival. Driving into Oatley, past the disused bowling greens alongside the railway line, and over the single lane bridge that crosses the tracks, there is a sign pointing to the shopping centre. The vinyl letters on it are curled from years of sunlight, but it still points the way to the Oatley shops and the clock.
Oatley is a suburb of parks and pleasure grounds, the enigmatically named Neverfail Bay, bakeries on the main street with jam rolls and finger buns in the window. It’s one of Sydney’s middle suburbs, its 20th century cottages slowly being replaced by much bigger houses, its trees grown up tall. It’s a quiet place, bounded by the Georges River, not a place passed through to get to anywhere else.
The clock is on its own island in the centre of Oatley, a garden of shrubs behind it. Parked at the kerb nearby is a man sharpening knives on a rotating stone mounted on the back of his motorbike. This small part of Oatley is place of clocks and tinkers. As I approach the clock, it chimes to announce 12:30, an electronic chime like there is someone inside playing a tune on an electronic keyboard.
Upon inspection the clock tower shares a number of features with the old suburban houses in the surrounding streets. It has a corrugated metal roof and iron lace panelling near the top of the tower. At the back is a screen door locked with a padlock, and behind it a surprisingly ordinary door with a round aluminium doorknob, for the Oatley Keeper of Clocks to gain access for maintenance and daylight saving switchovers. The clock has a face on each side of the tower, modest white circles with Roman numerals marking out the hours. As large as it is, it is the kind of clock that I can imagine in the living room of a house, softly chiming out the time to the rooms of the house around it.
Start looking for suburban clocks and, like anything you focus attention on, more will appear. A few days after visiting Oatley I was heading along Victoria Road, a road I have travelled countless times, when I passed by another prominent, but less celebrated, suburban clock.
The Gladesville clock arose from its concrete island near the corner of Victoria Road and Wharf Road in 1941. It was dedicated in the memory of Alderman James Sheridan, who had died during the clock’s construction, although according to the council website it was primarily constructed as a “traffic separation device”. It’s much less grand than the Oatley clock and has never had a festival in its honour, but it is seen by the tens of thousands of people who travel along Victoria road every day. Like the Oatley clock, there is a small garden of shrubs at the foot of the tower, and in the tower’s base a padlocked door, just big enough for a person to climb in and attend to the mechanism. Near the Gladesville clock is an almost empty corner building with a fading chalk sign reading “Save Our Suburbs”. An old neon on the roof advertises “amusements”; almost certainly this will soon be the site of a new development.
Gladesville has another civic clock only a few hundred metres away. This clock is a Seiko with a face like an oversized pocket watch. It is in the centre of Trim Place, the town square, planted within a circle of bricks on the pavement. At the centre is the plaque for the time capsule that is interred underneath. Buried there in 1986, the capsule is due to be opened in 2036, revealing, no doubt, the antique newspapers, floppy discs and paper currency that passed as everyday objects only fifty years before.
Not all suburban clocks keep good time. Some, like the Burwood post office clock (9:30) and the Newtown post office clock (3:45) are notoriously defunct. In 2012 the Sydney Morning Herald published an article about the “curse” of “dead clocks and their message of hopeless neglect”, including among them the surf club clocks of Manly and Cronulla and various post office and church clocks. It’s not so much a case of neglect for the church clocks, however. “The parishioners are getting older and can’t get up into the tower and they can’t wind them up any more,” explained a master clockmaker called upon to give his opinion on the situation.
In Paris in 2006 Untergunther, a chapter of the underground group UX, secretly restored the clock in the Panthéon. Unknown to the administration or security of the building they set up a workshop high up in the dome and over a period of months set about restoring the clock. They were successful and the clock chimed out the hours again – only to be stopped again by the building’s management, who took great offence at the clock being fixed in secret and took Untergunther to court over their actions. In the UK there’s a group dedicated to finding and fixing all of Britain’s stopped clocks. Tentative plans for a Sydney chapter have been put forward too. Perhaps Sydney needs to reintroduce a Keeper of Clocks.
In the Wired article about the Panthéon clock restoration, the clock is likened to a heart. It’s a common metaphor; there is something deathly about a stopped clock. Sydney’s stopped suburban clocks don’t quite seem dead to me though, more obstinate, confusing the unwary and revealing the apathy that can arise about old things and familiar places. Clocks, like gardens, are animate things that need our attention to keep them in order. The stopped clocks give us a glimpse of a Sydney in ruins, without anyone to impose time upon it. The gardens have run wild and the clocks have stopped. A city where is no one to unlock the padlock and climb up into the tower, and start everything going again.
* * *
Kurnell is most often seen from above, from the windows of planes as they come in to land over Botany Bay. The plane flies over the white polka dots of the petrol and oil tanks in the Caltex Oil refinery, then the thin strip of sandy beach that encloses the bay, then hovers over the water in such a way that nervous passengers become certain the plane will miss the runway. Yet, at the last moment, land appears.
At night, the refinery’s glow can be seen from across the bay, and flares of flame emerge from the chimneys like giant bunsen burners. The buildings are illuminated with strings of giant fairy lights. A midnight drive down the dark road to Kurnell, awaiting the lights of the refinery, is a scary adventure. Come morning this magical scene disappears, replaced with the grimy, industrial truth. The refinery’s tanks, pipes and chimneys are a reminder of the giant industries on which the world now relies, a landscape manmade but inhuman.
There is only one road into Kurnell, Captain Cook Drive. It follows the inner shore of the peninsula, passing by a wastewater treatment plant, a sand mine, a nature reserve, the desalination plant and the Caltex Oil Refinery. The refinery is positioned almost at the tip of the peninsula, surrounded by kilometres of vegetation and sand dunes. The drive there passes through coastal bushland, interrupted by the gates to industrial sites. The last thing I expect to find at the end of Captain Cook Drive is a suburb.
In front of the refinery entrance is a small Caltex petrol station, where two 80s Holden Commodores, one light brown, one dark brown, are being filled up, direct from the source. Just beyond this a sign welcomes visitors to Kurnell, “the birthplace of modern Australia”.
The modern Australia of Kurnell is a grid of suburban streets, lined with small 50s houses and the behemoth homes with porticos and large garages that are slowly replacing them. Many of the bayside houses on Prince Charles Parade are newly built in this style, with wide patios designed for hours of relaxing and watching the planes take off from the airport across the bay. There are still some small fibro houses remaining at the end of the street, their long yards cluttered with trucks, horse stables and rusting machines. In the driveway of one of these houses is a table set up with a jumble of objects. The cardboard sign nailed to the side of the table reads “Golden Coin Sale”.
Among the jars and plates and vases for sale is a riding hat, which I try on and find to fit me. I check my golden coin situation and offer the man at the stall $2. As I hand him the money I ask what it is like living in Kurnell.
“I love it!” he says.
“Do you feel like it’s a part of Sydney?”
He pauses. “Not really,” he says, as if this is one of the things he loves about it. “It’s a village, surrounded by a city.” He points behind his house and tells me he kept a rooster, horses, everything he could want back there.
There were more horses in Kurnell than I had been expecting. Among the trucks and cars collected around one house was a horse float, a velvety brown snout poking out from its window. Behind the girl scout hall, a brick box with a mural on the side of a motley collection of variously sized guides tending a campfire, was a girl trotting around a dressage ring on a grey and white pony.
Horses are not, however, the most unusual pets to be found here. In 2003 I was watching the news on television and, during the animal stories and bikies riding for charity segment at the end, there was a story about someone who had been keeping a 2.5 metre saltwater crocodile in their backyard pool. The pool had been enclosed by a cage, however as it is illegal to keep crocodiles as pets, the zoo had come to claim the beast, citing fears that it might get loose and escape into Sydney’s waterways.
Although the crocodile’s owner wasn’t home at time of the raid to comment, a National Parks spokesperson must have spoken to the nearby residents, as they reported that “the neighbours had grown quite attached to it.”
As I watched the report, the location appeared on the bottom of the screen: Kurnell. I wasn’t surprised. If one did want to covertly keep a crocodile, Kurnell seems suitably removed from the city for you to get away with it.
Riding hat purchased, I turn back along Prince Charles Parade. Across from the houses is Silver Beach, a long stretch of sand where people sunbake and sit to eat ice creams bought from the combined post office/fish and chip shop.
Interrupting the beach is the Caltex wharf, its pipes stretching a kilometre out into the bay. Underneath the wharf barnacles grow thickly on the pylons, and a CCTV camera watches all who pass by. I hear the faint sounds of a siren, a long, droning air raid kind of sound, which must have been coming from the refinery. Those who live in Kurnell must be used to it, but I can’t get the refinery out of my thoughts. As much as Kurnell appears like a normal suburb, details of the refinery are a constant presence: the chimneys and tanks visible behind the houses, vacant lots, the red and green star of the Caltex logo on signs and . Many Kurnell residents have worked at the refinery since it opened in the 1950s, although this is set to change when Caltex downgrades the refinery to a fuel storage facility in 2014.
The two most prominent presences in Kurnell are Caltex and Captain Cook. On weekdays, convoys of buses transport school children to the site of Cook’s landing place in 1770. This spot was marked by an obelisk in 1870, a truly colonial gesture: an object derived from ancient Egypt to commemorate the discovery of a “new” land. Set into the path leading to it is a recent revision, the words Warra warra wai – ‘go away’, documented as the words spoken by the Gweagal people to Cook and his party. These words are proud and lonely to imagine. I hear them in my head over the zip of jet skis from the bay behind me.
In 1970, a reenactment of Cook’s landing was staged here, with the Queen in attendance, watching from under a marquee on the beach. As Cook’s party approached the shore in a rowboat the event was upstaged by a group of Sydney university students who roared through in a speedboat, claiming the land for the famously mad King George III. While this was going on, at La Perouse on the other side of the bay, Aboriginal people threw wreaths into the bay in a mourning ceremony to acknowledge their dispossession of the land.
Botany Bay was originally intended as the site for the penal settlement that would become Sydney, before Arthur Phillip decided on the more suitable Port Jackson to the north in 1788. Botany Bay is the city’s alternate harbour, a mirror city of utility, dominated by the functional structures of the airport and shipping container port. I watch planes shooting out from the airport in different directions, and a freighter stacked with red Hamburg Sud shipping containers moving slowly towards the ocean. Beyond the cranes of the container terminal is the Sydney city skyline, muted by a bluish haze. I try to imagine what kind of Sydney would exist if the settlement had been built in Botany Bay instead. The bay has none of the drama of Sydney Harbour, being a wide, almost spherical bay surrounded by flat land. The Botany Bay Sydney would have been a calmer place, perhaps.
It is difficult to imagine Kurnell as the site for a city. It is Sunday and the reserve is crowded with picnics. A trio of teenagers play boules on the grass beneath three kookaburra observers perched in a tree above them. Around a table decorated with Happy Birthday bunting a family drink Coronas and converse in Russian. On the far side of the park a group of divers remove their tanks and peel off their wetsuits. As I walk around I come across many monuments and information panels. I read a series of panels describing the wildlife that once inhabited the area, before their habitat was destroyed. For what seems to be a very natural place it has undergone extensive environmental change, from the clearing of vast areas of ironbark forest to provide timber to build houses in the Sydney suburbs, to Victorian gents converging on Kurnell to hunt koalas.
On the eastern side of the peninsula are Kurnell’s sand dunes, which were created after the land was cleared in the 19th century. The dunes became a significant feature of the landscape, used by everyone from families visiting for a day of sliding down the sandhills, film crews filming Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and criminals disposing of bodies. But now even the dunes have been almost mined out of existence.
Kurnell’s isolation – both separate from, and part of Sydney – has shaped its character. Prior to the construction of Captain Cook Drive in the 1950s there was no road leading into Kurnell and most people arrived by ferry from La Perouse. In the early 20th century the peninsula was a popular place to camp and a shack community was established here during the 1930s Depression. Other people lived in precarious-looking houses they had constructed on the ocean cliffs on the other side of the peninsula.
The cliff houses and shanties have long since disappeared and the ferry ceased to run. The suburban streets of Kurnell are a regular pattern of houses, lawns, fences, garden ornaments and letterboxes. Australian flags fly outside fibro cottages and beachfront mini-mansions. Look closely, though, and irregularities appear, as they do in all suburbs. A garage door with the ghosts of angry warnings showing through under the paint. A van advertising white dove release services for weddings, funerals, birthdays and special occasions, its numberplate DOV 24U. An abandoned space hopper toy, faded to white, dumped in front of one of the vacant lots which line up with the path of the Caltex pipeline.