I’ve dropped a few hints here and there, but with its release date coming soon, it’s time to announce that Mirror Sydney will be released as a book in October! Published by Giramondo, it’s an unconventional city atlas: a collection of essays and hand-drawn maps, based on this blog, telling some of the stories of Sydney’s lesser-known, hidden, secret and strange places and histories, charting the city’s atsmospheres, and celebrating its recent past.
There will be a launch in October, as well as some tours and other fun things, which I’ll announce as the time draws near. For now, I’ll run through some of the cover stars.
- Hotel Westend
The mustard expanse of the Hotel Westend’s side wall, with its promise of 100 suites, is like a sunrise amid the surrounding towers. The tall, skinny building with the tall skinny wild-west-style sign seems a portal into a past era of city hotels, the kind that have steak houses on the premises and boast wall-to-wall carpet as a special feature.
The Westend is currently a backpackers, but not for much longer: it was recently sold and is destined for refurbishment, including unfortunately “replacing the letters on the sign to reflect the new name”. This new name seems to be “Ibis Budget Sydney Central“. If the Westend sign must go, I can only hope for its replacement to be an animated neon sign of an ibis dipping its long beak into a rubbish bin.
2. Kenilworth Witches’ House
On the high ridge at the end of Johnston Street are the witches’ houses, the row of Victorian-era mansions that were built in the 1880s, designed by architect John Young. Kenilworth is the tallest and most immediately striking of the houses for its tall, central spire (like a witches’ hat – hence the name) and imperious position. It once had a twin, an identical house next door, that was demolished in 1967 and replaced by a block of red-brick flats. But Kenilworth still has two other companions: to the other side are twin houses with spires on the side, built for John Young’s daughters.
Kenilworth is a fantasy house with its tower and gargoyles, seemingly plucked from a gothic fairytale and transplanted into the Sydney suburbs. It’s a house for dreaming about, wondering what it would be like to peer out its high windows. I still imagine I live in it every time I go past, with my pet raven and library with red velvet curtains and ladders against the bookshelves. All cities need these dream houses, places for wishes and desires to be planted.
3. Fibro Houses
At the opposite end of the spectrum to the gothic mansion are the fibro houses of the south western suburbs. Built in profusion after the second world war, these houses were quickly and easily assembled, and were a haven for many families who had moved from the overcrowded inner-city, or come to Australia as post-war migrants. Although many have been demolished to be replaced by houses twice their size, many still remain, especially around Bankstown and its surrounding suburbs.
These houses are bittersweet: their pastel colours and heart-shaped decorations belying the toxic material from which they were fabricated. They are a manifestation of 1950s and 60s suburban idealism, their neat proportions aspiring to a similarly neat life within their walls. They’re humble houses but proud ones, each customised with different colour paint, or different types of plants in the garden, or house numbers accompanied by silhouettes of horses and carriages. Their pale, thin walls give them an appearance of lightness, of malleability: Patrick White described them in Tree of Man as “brittle in moonlight, soluble in dreams”.
They are a type of house I know well, for I live in one very similar, and know its moods well. Fiercely hot in summer, icy in winter, the walls feel thin like they’re made of cardboard. Mid-afternoon, when all is still outside, I look out the window and imagine the street as it would have been when the house was built in 1960, and the past seems almost graspable, just under the skin of the present.
Sometimes the best way to understand something is to step outside of it. In this spirit myself, Peter Doyle, Chris Mikul and Michael Wayne are bringing Weird Sydney up into the mountains to the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba on August 12th.
We will be talking about the city’s oddities and offbeat places, and chatting about some of the unusual objects and stories we’ve found in the city’s archives. Afternoon tea is also included! The Paragon’s a beautiful art deco cafe and we will be speaking in the 1930s banquet hall, designed in ocean-liner style.
You can book tickets, and read a bit more about the event here.
Looking down on Sydney from the window of a plane my eyes move across its landmarks. The window is the shape of a gemstone, an opal ring, in which the image below flashes with ever-shifting details. No sooner have I fixed my attention on the red and yellow cranes of Port Botany then they have receded, replaced by the Kurnell peninsula and the circular white petrol storage tanks of the Caltex refinery, then the remains of the now-much-eroded sand dunes landscape, then the edge of the land, beyond which Sydney disappears.
This time there’s a bright arc of colour striping across the view of the ocean and sky, a rainbow with another, paler double in parallel. The plane seems to fly right through it, like it’s a farewell garland.
A few minutes later and Sydney, that place that can seem so all-enclosing when I am in it, is gone, replaced by ocean and sky. The seatbelt sign goes off and people start to snap the window-shades down. When they raise them again it will be eight hours later, and we will be in another part of the world entirely.
Coming back home three weeks later, it’s dark, pre-dawn, and I can see the suburbs below me in a pattern of lights. I scan for a few minutes until I spy something I recognise – the orange building at the crest of Taverner’s Hill. It’s too dark to see its colour, but its blocky bulk is unmistakeable. It’s a surprisingly prominent and useful landmark, this building that was once a brewery, now a self storage warehouse. Inside it are millions of objects that people have put to the side, giving the building, in my imagination, a denser weight than the others that surround it.
The plane travels over the inner west streets, over Tempe Tip and the barrier of scrappy land between it and the airport, and then bumps down on the runway. A moment later, the “Welcome to Sydney” announcement comes. I like this transition: the plane hovering just above the runway, then the jolt of the wheels against the tarmac and the plane’s deceleration to a point where it’s certain we’re safe and landed, and then the announcement to seal the journey’s end.
Even after only three weeks away things have changed. The leaves are all fallen from the trees, carpeting the pavement along my street. There are more storeys added to the big developments on the main road and by the railway line. I’m jetlagged, the bright Sydney light pulls at my eyelids, and I feel not quite here, not quite there.
A few mornings afterwards I drive to the cliffs above the ocean at Maroubra. The sea is rough, crashing white on the rocks below the rock platform above which I sit on a sandstone crag, pitted with holes and cracks. I set out my things: notebook, thermos, paper bag with a brioche inside. As I eat the brioche a magpie hops up to me and I toss it a crumb. Soon its friends arrive and there are six magpies on the rock in front of me, and I’m throwing them crumbs which they snap up in midair. I know these birds. Their territory is the headland, and I often see them on the sweep of lawn behind the cliffs, heads cocked as they listen for insects under the soil.
One of the birds starts to sing, a warbling jumble of notes that bubbles up from its throat. Soon they are all singing, a magpie choir serenading me as I sit here on the rock above the ocean. It is the moment I feel truly home, back in the city where my life takes place.
If there’s one type of place I am commonly drawn to, it is places on the margins: otherwise ignored, or soon to disappear, or discarded. Sometimes these places are also literally on the margins, in the outer suburbs, or on the edge of the city.
The Salvation Army store in Tempe is both. It is literally on the edge of the city, at the very last patch of the suburban land before the outskirts of the airport begins. Inside the warehouse that is the store and sorting centre are the discarded objects of Sydney residents, an abundance of clothes and furniture and bric a brac. Sydney has plenty of op shops, but this is one is certainly the most famous, so well known that it has, with its nickname “Tempe Tip”, become a cultural reference point.
The first references to the op shop as Tempe Tip appear in newspapers in the 1960s. The name was taken from the rubbish dump next door to the Salvation Army depot, and soon Tempe Tip became synonymous with the op shop, rather than with its original identity. Some of the newspaper mentions are utilitarian, advising newlyweds with little money to visit the Tempe Tip in order to furnish their houses. It is also mentioned in lifestyle articles, describing how people gather in corners at parties to talk about Tempe tip and the secondhand furniture bargains they found there. It’s the place to go for props and costumes, too. In 1971 the visiting Zorba Song and Dance company bought 10000 plates to be broken on stage in what was described as the “uninhibited finale” to their performance.
The Tempe Tip is also something of a local slang term, used to denigrate the quality of goods or clothing. If something “looks like it came from the Tempe Tip”, for example, it is no doubt shabby and strange. It was also used to denote poor quality in general. In 1966 the Sydney Morning Herald reviewer of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” declared that:
He has moved into a fuzzy world of songs which abound in personal fantasies. His voice has contracted to a mumble. His accompaniments are a scattered jumble which sounds as though they were recorded at the Tempe tip. We know that artists must be permitted to change their approach, but this is ridiculous.
My favourite articles about Tempe Tip describe the scene on Saturday morning, as people waited to be let inside the gates. In a Sydney Morning Herald article from 1982, “On Your Marks at Tempe Tip”, the scene is described in detail:
The waiting crowd is stacked impatiently behind a cyclone wire fence which heaves, stretches and sags with their weight. Promptly at 11, Charles H. Jolly, in a straw cowboy hat and a pink western shirt, opens the gates and stands back as a 200-strong crowd stampedes in search of cut-price treasure. The battle for a bargain at Tempe Tip, the Salvo’s Miroma thrift shop, is fiercer than the struggle at Harrod’s spring sale: people push, pull, scream and swear territorially over their secondhand goodies.
In the 1980s the Tempe Tip’s opening hours were 11am – 2:30 during the week, and on Saturdays what was described as a “brief, exciting” two hours from 7:30am to 9:30am. Another article describes how :
You had to be young, fit and wearing your running shoes to race people sprinting in to get the best bargains.
The Salvation Army first moved onto this land in 1909, and set up a Prison Gate Farm here, providing employment for newly-released prisoners. A plan for a piggery was approved by the council in 1909, despite the objections from the nearby bakery which worried that “any offensive odours floating about in the air were liable to find their way into the dough when it was in a state of ferment, and would be in the bread when baked”.
The farm activities wound down and the site became a secondhand goods market. The name Tempe Tip came and stuck, and is still the affectionate term for the op shop that is there today. The shop is a large, low warehouse, painted royal blue with red awnings.
Just beyond it is a view of the edge of the airport and planes moving slowly from their hangars. Trucks go past at all times of the day and night, carrying shipping containers back and forth from the terminal at the end of Swamp Road, through a landscape of shipping containers, pampas grass, and the tall yellow pylons that support the landing lights for the runway.
The first time I came to Tempe Tip was some time in the 1990s and I thought it a kind of op shop heaven. The scene inside was much calmer than the crush of waiting shoppers against the wire fence in the 1980s, but it was no less exciting to me, newly moved out of home. I bought armfuls of clothes, baskets of bric a brac and a big round coffee table, a metre and a half across, with a copper top carved with hieroglyphics. A friend of mine with a van, a goth who played in a Birthday-Party-esque band, helped me convey this enormous table home. I liked to imagine the 1970s lounge room this table had once been a part of, something that would be pictured in one of the kitsch home decorating guides that I also bought in abundance from the Tempe Tip.
As I approach the entrance, I notice a man waiting out the front of the op shop. He is wearing a leather jacket with a logo on the back for the “Raging Dads”. His friend, another Raging Dad with tattoos and long hair, leaves the store with an armful of clothes and they push off with their baby strollers, their shopping trip complete. Mine has only just begun. It has been some time since I’ve been to Tempe Tip, but it works its magic over me as ever.
The store has its own atmosphere with the roar of planes overhead, the giant industrial fans suspended from the ceiling, and people intently browsing. A man discusses a Willow patterned platter with his elderly mother, who is holding a plastic bag of balls of mauve wool. A woman sizes up ceramic dog figurines, turning them over to look for maker’s marks on the paws. In the furniture section people move from couch to couch, testing them for comfort. A man with a bum-bag slung across his body like a holster pushes a shopping trolley past me, its contents an insect zapper and books by Deepak Chopra.
In between the planes flying by overhead, and the jangling sound of someone going through the cutlery, the radio plays U2s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”. I keep looking. Tempe Tip will have it, even if I don’t know exactly what it is yet.
As part of this year’s Australian Heritage Festival, I’ll be presenting a talk and slideshow about St Peters called “Post Industrial Playground”. It’s on May 10th at St Peters library, and is free, but please register here if you’d like to come along. I’ll be talking about St Peters’ recent past, with a focus on alternative culture: punx picnics, St Peters in pop culture, and weird scenes from Sydney Park. Of which there are many.
**UPDATE: Thank you to everyone who entered and shared their lost and found Sydney stories. I’ve drawn the prize from my top hat and have a winner – congratulations to Kristina!**
On April 1st I’m hosting the Sydney Lost and Found bus tour with Sydney Living Museums, in conjunction with the exhibition Demolished Sydney. It’s a mystery tour that starts in the city and heads south into the suburbs, travelling through time and stories as we go.
The tour is sold out, but I have a ticket to giveaway! To enter, leave a comment with your favourite lost, or rediscovered place in Sydney. Next Tuesday, I’ll draw the prize (at random using the names in a hat method). Good luck!
Details of the tour are here.