Living Postcard

The train emerges from the tunnel towards Circular Quay station and the darkness outside the windows is replaced by a long, thin panorama, a horizontal slice of sky and water bracketed by the Harbour Bridge and Opera House. It’s a living postcard, animated by the ferries and the clouds, watched by those waiting on the platform. People lean against the glass barriers to take photos of the harbour, or just gaze out, watching the ever-moving scene in front of them.

I join the throng clogging the top of the steps that lead down to the concourse. I hang back, not in a hurry, and wait until I’m the last to descend. As I walk down, I look above the stairs to where, set high up into the wall, there are ornamental grilles decorated by bronze fish. They have a stranded look to them, a little bit dusty, but with their rainbow sheen still visible.

I always look for them, one of the few decorative features of this station which, since its opening in 1956, has been relentlessly condemned as ugly, interrupting the view of the harbour from the city, and the city from the harbour. The construction of the station and the Cahill Expressway above it was a drawn out and unpopular process. Things came to a head at the 1958 opening of the Cahill Expressway, when despite the premier’s announcement that this was “a striking symbol of Sydney’s growth and maturity”, things did not go as planned.

Sydney Morning Herald, March 25, 1958

If Circular Quay station is maligned, the Cahill Expressway is even more so. The railway line and the road above it forms a thick line that cuts across the view, as if it’s a low, wide belt keeping the city in check. There has often been talk of the expressway’s demolition: in 1994 Prime Minister Paul Keating even offered the NSW state government the funds to remove it. Yet it remains, visually intrusive, loved by no one, but not entirely without charm. A side-effect of maligned places is that people avoid them, which can, sometimes, twist their atmosphere into something unusual and interesting.

The Cahill Walk is a good example of this. To get to it I move quickly along the Circular Quay promenade, past people munching through pancakes at City Extra and passengers coming off the Manly ferry. Details flash up: a man wearing a t-shirt that says “winter is not coming”; the round bronze discs set into the pavement that commemorate famous writers. I step over A.D. Hope, Barry Humphries, and Kenneth Slessor, until I’m at a grove of palm trees hemmed in by concrete, that surround a glass elevator clamped to the side of the railway line and road above.

I press the elevator call button and soon the doors open in front of me, puffing out a cold, air-conditioned breath in welcome. I step inside, the doors seal me in, and the noise of the quay recedes. I’m inside a bubble, ascending, above the tops of the palm trees now, the view of the Harbour Bridge coming clear the higher up the lift rises.

At the top, the doors behind me open and I turn to face the four lanes of traffic on the expressway. A long, concrete walkway extends beside it like a grey ribbon.

Never, in all the times I’ve been up here, has there been many other people here. It’s one day of popularity is New Year’s Eve: a ballot operates for tickets to watch the fireworks from here. At other times, you might very well have it to yourself. This morning there’s almost no one else but me, apart from an occasional runner jogging by. It’s only a slight change of perspective from the Quay below, but has a completely different mood. If it weren’t for the incessant traffic, and the way the path trembles underfoot when heavy vehicles go by, it would be a tranquil, pleasurable place to be, rather than the exposed and sometimes slightly eerie experience it is to walk here.

The traffic speeds by, having just come off the Harbour Bridge. I watch the intent expressions of people behind the wheels of their cars, notice a man on his motorbike singing as he rides along, and feel the path shudder when a demolition truck goes by, the word CHOMP in orange across the front. On the other side is Warrane, the bay dominated by a gargantuan cruise ship with a steaming funnel like a kettle just come off the boil. The poisonous smell of the diesel fuel drifts across. On the front of the cruise ship is a man in overalls, tethered to a railing above, holding a paint roller on a stick, repainting the ship’s nose. The expanse of fresh white paint follows him as he moves slowly along.

Walking up here, alongside the expressway, is to have a feeling of floating mid-air, looking into the thicket of city buildings to one side and the harbour’s expanse on the other.

Below where I am on the Cahill Walk, the crowds of Circular Quay mill and disperse. Up here I’m alone, with traffic and jackhammering and construction noise filling the air as I look towards the building sites on the city’s edge. Behind them are dozens of office buildings, thousands of windows, each framing a view of the harbour. Anyone looking out of them at this moment would be moving their eyes over the same scene as me, watching the harbour, the ferries, the shifting clouds, that familiar scene, slowly changing. 

***

Thank you dear readers for following Mirror Sydney in 2018, a busy year for me, with the book out in the world. It was a delight to meet some of you when I had launches and talks, and I look forward to more in 2019.

 

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Johnstons Creek

The creek first appears off Salisbury Road, beyond a patch of unkempt grass. Ivy trails down into the concrete channel, where a stream of milky stormwater flows north towards the harbour. On one side of it are light industrial buildings, once jam and ginger beer manufacturers, now offices. On the other side is Cardigan Street and its rows of small, brick houses. The creek runs covertly between their back fences and the back walls of the old factories.

Johnston005

Creeks cut through the Sydney suburbs, tracing out seismographic patterns. They are an enduring feature of the landscape, even if, like Johnstons Creek, they have become a stormwater drain. Johnstons Creek still follows roughly the same path as it did before the land was cleared and the streets constructed. In Sydney it is the water which has determined the topography, the erratic outline of the bays and inlets of the harbour. Creeks form boundaries and often a suburb’s borders will run along the path of a creek.

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Map from 1849, when Glebe Island was an island, and before the reclamation of the harbourside land of Rozelle Bay.

Annandale is enclosed by two creeks, Johnstons and Whites. Both now are concrete channels which drain stormwater into the harbour, running behind back fences, or through strips of parkland, until they reach Rozelle Bay. Of the two creeks Johnston is the longest and more visible. For years I lived very close to it, near where it crosses Parramatta Road. I took solace in its persistence. It seemed unlikely there would be a creek running through the cluttered, concrete environs of Parramatta Road. The creek ran down behind the 24 hour McDonalds, where fights broke out in the trash-strewn carpark. It passed under the road and then down underneath the junkyard at the end of my street, where there was an ever shifting configuration of discards.

Today I am determined to follow the creek down to the bay, keeping close as I can to its path. I stand on the small concrete footbridge behind Cardigan Street, watching the water rushing underneath. It’s a hot day, with screeching cicadas and searing sun. The heat seems to flatten everything. On the nearby street corner men are smoothing new pavement, carefully scoring the edges, trusting the sun to dry the concrete before anyone comes to scratch in their name.

At the end of Cardigan Street is the thunderous traffic of Parramatta Road. When the road was a dusty, but busy, thoroughfare in the 1840s there was a toll gate here at the creek. Now most of the cars cross it without knowing it is even there: the only sign is a small metal plaque on the footpath near the fence, and a cracked “Municipality of Petersham” marker inlaid into the cement.

Johnstons Plaque

I cross Parramatta Road and I head down the alleyway to the junkyard. It is still as odd as ever, there are sections of shipping container marked with messages, “White Wolf”, “Blood Storm”, beside the cabin of an old ute up on pallets. I step through a gap in the building site fence to walk up to the arch that overlooks the creek. This had always been a spooky place, this dead end between two old warehouses. The warehouse on the Camperdown side still stands, but on the Annandale side the lot is now a pile of rubble with tall weeds growing up out of it, the remains of the foundations still marking out where the shopfronts used to be.

Johnstons Junkyard

The path ends at an archway sealed by metal bars. Here the Parramatta Road traffic above is loud but invisible. There’s no one around, only a scruffy black and white stray cat that stares from behind a pile of rusted metal. I put my face to the bars to look down at the water running below. The cool air rushes up to my face from the cavern of wet stone.

Johnston022

From here the creek runs underneath the junkyard path, which I follow along behind a row of houses. One of these I remember as having psychedelic flowers painted all over the side wall, but it is now a sensible white. Dry leaves crackle under my footsteps and the ravens make their see-saw calls from the trees above.

The other side of the junkyard path is also a deserted dead end. Below the fence here the concrete creek channel re-emerges. This section is the easiest to access while still being hidden from view, so it is a haunt of graffiti writers, and the concrete is crowded with tags. But unless I want to follow their lead and climb down into the creek I have to take the long way around. I go through the warehouse back streets towards the forboding, windowless concrete compound that used to be owned by the Commonwealth Bank. When, years ago, I lived in a sharehouse near here sometimes we’d wonder: is that where they kept the gold? Now, like many of the old warehouses nearby, it’s a self storage place, full of oddments and archives.

I’m glad I didn’t hop down into the channel and follow it along, because around the next corner I would have met a group of plumbers and Sydney Water engineers. They are investigating something to the side of the creek, one of the many pipes that drain into it along its route. To them, this is known as “Stormwater Channel No. 55” and forms part of the city’s vast network of drains and channels. They talk for a while and then, their business concluded, a plumber and a Sydney Water technician stand on either side of the stream and shake hands across it.

The channel is wider here. The water slowly gathers force and grows in size as it moves towards the harbour. On either side are tangles of athsma weed and drifts of ivy and wire fencing. The brightly coloured tags continue. Among them are caricatures and faces, a fox holding a syringe full of purple paint, a wizard with a bong. Every gap contains a scribble.

johnstons creek athsma weed On the other side of Booth Street the mournfully named Orphan School Creek joins the flow of water. The streams meet behind what was once the Children’s Hospital and now is a residential complex. Leading up to the apartment buildings is a set of stairs through a drift of large stones and pebbles. This landscaping is relatively new but has been there for long enough for people to mess with it, stacking the stones into cairns.

This area was once eucalypt forest and the creek a natural freshwater stream running over rocks at the bottom of a gully. The Cadigal and Wangal people lived here, hunting in the forest, fishing in the bay. But by the 1790s this landscape had already changed as the land was cleared by convict labour. Before it was subdivided in the late 19th century, the Johnston estate occupied the area in between Whites Bay and Johnstons Creeks. In some areas of the estate the bushland had regrown, and by the time English economist Stanley Jevons lived in Annandale in 1855, he found a path over Johnstons Creek was more favourable than dusty Parramatta Road.

“…the day before yesterday I found a delightful way to the town through woods and dales instead of along a dusty road. I start off in the wood at our back door, and walk through close tall gum-trees and over picturesque rocks for a full mile, when I come to a stream, an inlet of the harbour; this is crossed by a bridge formed of a large gum-tree which has been blown down and fallen across it, a long row of bullocks’ skulls being laid in the mud as stepping-stones on one side: the view here along the stream is also quite pretty, at least to Australian eyes.”

I like to think of Stanley Jevons hopping from bullock skull to bullock skull in the marshy ground around the creek. I doubt, however, he’d think the concrete drainage channel that would replace the creek as pretty, nor the spraypaint inscriptions on its sides. Despite its lack of prettiness, there is something peaceful about following the path of the creek. It forms a secret passageway between the streets, cutting through underneath the roads, going underground, re-emerging.

Like Jevons, when I lived in Annandale I often walked along Johnstons Creek. My favourite part of the journey was encountering the aqueduct. It was built as part of the sewerage system in the late 19th century and has the distinction of being the first reinforced concrete structure built in Australia. It stretches across the valley like the spine of a gigantic dinosaur, bleached white by the sun.

Johnstons Aqueduct

The aqueduct appears at the back of the Glebe PCYC. Chairs are set up in one of the arches, their legs chained to the nearby fence. Then it passes over the creek, high up on concrete pylons. On Nelson Street, at the aqueduct’s western limit, there is a mural painted on the wall beside it. It is based on a photo of the aqueduct from the time of its construction.

aqueduct 2

Image: Leichhardt Library

It’s striking how bald the land looks, how blank, the foreground strewn with rubble. The overall effect, enhanced by the grainy black and white photograph, is of a Victorian suburb being constructed on the moon. When Annandale was subdivided and allotments sold in the 1870s it was described by the auctioneers as a “model township”, with “no back lanes” and “the best of drainage”. This distinguished it from the cramped and unhealthy slum areas of The Rocks and Surry Hills and accounts for its wide streets and scattering of grand buildings.

The creek passes underneath The Crescent. By now the channel is even wider, although the water through the middle is still only a trickle. The tags and graffiti have disappeared and the only decorations on the concrete are the streams of water which flow down from the stormwater pipes. On the north side is the building site where the Harold Park Paceway used to be, and now cranes and scaffolds attend the construction of the new development. The Glebe tram sheds, once a derelict wonderland, are barricaded with fences. The access road is presided over by a security guard sitting under a tree, who breaks up the monotony of the day by nodding to everyone who walks past.

There aren’t many people out on this hot day. An elderly man swaddled in clothes, long sleeves, long trousers, a hat, gloves. Joggers with expressions of masochistic vigour. A dog walker with a Griffin Bruxellois, a pug, and a terrier panting at the end of their leads. Althought he’s not out today, this is the territory of Mark, Sydney’s most famous, and happiest, dog walker. When I used to walk here often I’d see him with his cadre of large dogs, telling everyone he passes that Jesus loves them. His basic message is along the lines of “You’re beautiful! Sweet Jesus loves you!”, with endless variations on this theme. He could be counted upon for a unique compliment: “the only person more handsome than your boyfriend is Sweet Jesus!”

johnstons viaduct

The railway viaduct, a long stretch of brick archways, crosses the creek and runs through the park. The arches closest to the oval have been enclosed to form rooms: the Glebe Hockey Club has had its headquarters here since 1960, and now the Big Fag Press and the Glebe Men’s Shed reside here also. Other past uses of the arches include housing a flock of sheep, which were used to trim the grass on the oval. At night they were barricaded in under the arches. Now the this area is mostly the domain of dogs. Under the arch nearest the dog park is a dog memorial wall, with inscriptions for Dougal and Precious, Rasta and Kayne: King of the Park.

Behind the rail line is an overgrown patch of land. The pathway through it, alongside the viaduct, is known as “The Street With No Name”. This is said to be one of Sydney’s most haunted sites. There have been a number of murders here since the 1960s, the bodies found in the undergrowth around the pathway. More benignly, the ghost of a man who was hit by a train when trying to save an injured possum is also said to stalk the nearby railway tracks.

johnstons no name

On the other side of the viaduct the fences end and it is easy to step down over the low wall and into the concrete channel. I step over the mossy mud and towards the water. I’ve been following it for an hour or more but this is the first time I’ve been close enough to touch it. But I don’t do this. The water is cloudy, with bubbles of scum on the surface, run-off from last night’s rain.

Johnstons Creek

The bay water and sediment is contaminated by heavy metals after decades of industry. From the 1830s noxious industries like the Glebe Island abbatoir, tanneries and soapworks were established around Rozelle Bay. The terrible smell from the abbatoir, and the offal dumped in the bay was increasingly cause for complaint and it closed in 1915. After these industries were gone the area where the park is now was timber yards, before these were closed in the 1970s. Plans to build a large marina were raised then scrapped, after strong community opposition, and the foreshore has been parkland since 1988.

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Campaign poster by Susan D. White

I walk along the edge of the creek until I come to where it meets the bay. There are clumps of black oyster shells on either side of the inlet, and at the point where the waters merge the colours shift from grey to green. Once this was a landscape of mangroves and mudflats. There are still vestiges of this environment, a mangrove restoration area on one side of the creek mouth and on the other side, a small strip of sand. The sand is patterned with bird footprints like arrows pointing haphazardly across the soft mud. There are more clumps of oyster shells here and the expected kinds of rubbish, plastic packets, a condom, a split and sodden orange. Once I remember looking down into the water here and seeing a dead rat and a passionfruit floating together, a surrealist pairing that at the time seemed a profound environmental message.

johnstons waters edge

I look up across the bay, past the wading ibis at the end of the sandbar, to the cars travelling over the Anzac Bridge. I’m not the only one on the water’s edge. Along the wall solitary people are sitting, at a respectful distance from each other. I’m tempted to think that it’s peaceful here, though I change my mind when I take a moment to listen. The roar of the traffic, planes going overhead, the mad laugh of kookaburras from one of the fig trees. It’s not exactly a peaceful place, but it is a contemplative one. I retreat to the shade and watch the cars travelling over the bridge. Beyond it, floating in the sky near the Harbour Bridge, I’m surprised to see an airship. I blink in case it’s just something floating in my eye but no, it’s like 1986 and the Swan Premium Lager, or the Tooheys blimp is gliding across the sky (except this time it’s advertising Appliances Online).

Across the bay is the superyacht shipyard and beside it a yard with older boats. The old pilot boat John Oxley, built in 1927, its faded red hull is marooned alongside a ferry, a restaurant boat and other miscellaneous craft. Behind the boatyards is the ruin of the White Bay power station, with its two tall chimneys and hulking turbine hall. Almost all of this scene will change in the coming years. The Bays Precinct Urban Transformation Program has plans to regenerate the bay areas, including the power station and the land along the waterfront.

johnstons shipyard

I move along, following the water’s edge. There is a stretch of rocks then a small beach, where a dog wades into the water to retrieve a ball then stands in the shallows, chewing it. The wheezey squeak of the ball in between the dog’s teeth makes a satisfying sound. Beyond the beach there’s a fence and I can go no further. There’s another shipyard here and then a vacant lot, its fence hung with homemade Merry Christmas banners made by Maurice the window washer, who is pacing up and down between the cars in his Santa outfit.

I stop here, looking out over the bay a final time. There had been a junkyard here once, called the Thunderbird, run by a man from Oklahoma. It had a weird and miscellaneous collection of things and the one time I was brave enough to go in there I was drawn to a cardboard box among some rusty machinery. Inside there were half a dozen small brown puppies, which all turned their heads to blink up at me.


Flanagan’s Afloat

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.

Captain Cook Floating Restaurant

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.

Flanagans Afloat

Flanagan’s Afloat returns to Rose Bay in 1977 after one of its infrequent journeys for maintenance. Photo from Woollahra Municipal Council.

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.

Kids At Flanagans

A happy scene at Flanagans – photo by Allan West, from Woollahra Library.

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.

Shaul Column

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.

Flying Boats Rose Bay

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.

The Rose Bay Afloat being towed across the harbour – a happy day for its many opponents in the east. Photo from the Sydney Morning Herald.

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.

floating restaurant snails bay

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.