This week, two filing cabinets were bought at an ex-government furniture sale. The purchasers were surprised to find them complete with confidential documents inside. As the resulting scandal unfolds, with its serious implications for national security, I can’t help but come back to thoughts of the two filing cabinets. Two unassuming white metal boxes, the cause of a lot of trouble.
In Canterbury, with the removal of a nearby house and some trees, another set of filing cabinets have captured my attention. Now starkly visible on the wall are the faded outlines of an office scene, a desk, chair and filing cabinets. The chair is of a familiar kind: upholstered in black vinyl with a heavy base of four steel legs radiating from a central stem. The legs end in the casters on which the chair is perched. Its kind still lurks in old offices or can be found stranded in sharehouse backyards furnishing the smoking area near the back door.
In this office the chair has been pushed back from the desk, leaving a space between them, as if whoever has been working there has just stepped away for a moment. On the desk’s surface is a pale square, a large document, maybe a map, its details faded beyond legibility. The green filing cabinet nearby has the G-M drawer open and the file folders visible inside, but no further clues as to the business that has gone on here.
This suspended moment is painted on the wall of a cleaning supplies business in Canterbury. In the corner of the office scene is the logo of the company it’s advertising: Brownbuilt. An additional sign for the office furniture business that sold these items is gone, with only the metal supports that once held it remaining poking up from the roof.
Brownbuilt still make steel office furniture and equipment, with a speciality in the most serious of office storage systems, the compactus. Looking back through the archives there seems to be no storage conundrum that Brownbuilt hasn’t developed a solution for. If you were a television network needing a film storage system, a hotel that needed efficient storage for linen, or if you needed a “car compactus” for your parking lot, Brownbuilt could help you. From their factory in Clifton Hill, Melbourne, and then in their large factory in Kirrawee in the Sutherland Shire, Brownbuilt produced all manner of steel contraptions and receptacles. One particularly entrancing photograph of a Brownbuilt factory shows a row of filing cabinets travelling along a high conveyer belt, dangling from it like bunting.
I know the kind of office that’s on this wall. It’s the analogue kind, with a vinyl and wood varnish atmosphere. In such an office the filing cabinets seem sentient; they guard the office’s memory. Still now, in some businesses that have changed little in decades – mechanics, old-school accountants, or rubber stamp suppliers – such scenes can be encountered.
The activities at this office are paused forever. Whoever was at the desk is an absence at the centre of the image, as the plans or instructions that made them step away are faded, unreadable, and the filing cabinet holds its secrets.
This block of Canterbury Road, Roselands, is bracketed by fast food restaurants. KFC is at the top, with its smell of hot fat and litter of refresher towelette sachets, its perimeter marked by rows of globular, red-leafed shrubs: chosen no doubt for their conformity to the KFC colour scheme. On the other end of the block is McDonalds, with its stunted palm trees and loitering, drive-thru traffic. On the other side of the road are building supplies warehouses, with a focus on tiles and bathroom fixtures. Faded banners for sales and discounts hang in their windows.
I might not have noticed this block in particular if it wasn’t for the monster. It presides over an abandoned lot beside the McDonalds that has, over its recent history, been a used car lot, then a water tank retailer. Now it is a site awaiting redevelopment. Over years of lying fallow the lot has fallen into disrepair, the weeds growing tall and trash accruing on the cracked concrete.
It is little different to any other vacant lot, except in one detail.
Draped over the corner of the canopy the monster first wore a leering expression, each white tooth clearly defined against the cookie-monster blue of its ragged body. Its appendages trailed down, swaying in the wind as it stared, vacantly, out towards the road. It could have been resting, awaiting reactivation. Or maybe it had it been trapped and vanquished there, its remains left as warnings to other monsters not to try to haunt Canterbury Road.
Now it’s more than a year since I first saw the monster. Over this time it has stayed much the same, weathering storms and sun and days gentle or fierce. The wind brings it to life, but never quite enough to reanimate it. But when I last went past it, I saw the monster had turned away from the street. It had moved towards the edge of the awning, a step closer to its escape, to flying free over Roselands and away.
Outside Eastlakes Shopping Centre Santa Claus is telling jokes to the construction workers, who are sitting resting under the plane trees that shade the entrance. He’s been on a circuit of the centre: waving to the people buying scratch lottery tickets in the newsagency and the men sitting in their permanent, coffee-drinking positions outside ‘Healthy Alternative’, the cafe at the front of the shopping centre.
I’m at Healthy Alternative too, but sitting inside, looking out through the letters of the slogan painted on the window – Gourmet Takeaway By Day, The Best Pizza By Night – as I eat my “Birth of Venus” sandwich. The cafe has a Renaissance theme, the chalkboards decorated with iconic artworks of the period given a sandwich-and-pizza twist. In the Sistine-Chapel-ceiling Creation scene God hands Adam a slice of pizza. On the adjacent board Michelangelo’s David holds a sandwich he has just taken a bite out of. On the chalkboard listing the drinks, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man grasps a beverage in each of his four hands.
The construction site I can see across the road used to be an additional section of the shopping centre, until it was demolished earlier this year in the first stage of the redevelopment plan. The main Eastlakes Shopping Centre, this perfect 1980s time capsule, has a reprieve until 2019. New slick signs have appeared at the entrance, promising “A fresh start. A new opportunity”, paired with an image of a pair of brown leather shoes, a camera, watch and belt. This must be the garb of the corporate giant responsible.
Eastlakes Shopping Centre wears this slick image like an uncomfortable uniform. Despite the surface changes, and inside the addition of brocade armchairs and feature walls of imitation greenery, Eastlakes is a trip back in time. The centre was built in 1964 as The Lakes shopping centre, along with the red brick apartment buildings and public housing blocks that surround it, on land that was previously Rosebery Racecourse. The suburb itself is built on the Kamaygal land to the north of Botany Bay: half of it is former swampland that was, for a century, the source of the city’s water supply. Now the dams are ponds within the Eastlakes golf course, on the other side of Southern Cross Drive, which slices through the centre of the suburb.
The shopping centre holds the 1980s like a genie in a bottle. The soundtrack, piped throughout, is a continuous blend of 1980s favourites: “Drive” by The Cars, or “Missing You” by John Waite, or “With or Without You” by U2, or “Don’t Know Much” by Linda Ronstadt or any other over-produced, atmosphere-and-synthesiser drenched song you could name. With the mood suitably set, you are then ready to follow the path set out by the floor tiles, a contrasting pattern of brown linoleum which zigzags out every five metres.
The zigzag path leads through Eastlakes’ collection of delicatessens, speciality grocers, bargain stores, and businesses that have changed little for thirty, some fifty, years. At the back of the centre is Super Scissors, an 80s time capsule of primary-coloured shelving, the window guarded by pictures of women with short, angular hairstyles and icy looks.
Despite its sparse decoration, whenever I’ve been passed Super Scissors there’s a haircut-in-progress, and someone waiting on the bench underneath a joke plaque: “sorry to keep you waiting but we are a bit tied up”, with a cartoon of a man tightly bound in many loops of rope, baring his teeth like an angry horse.
On the way to Super Scissors is a row of claw machines, with toys and chocolate bars trapped inside. There also used to also be a weighing scale which offered a ticket printed with your weight and an inspirational quote. The public weigh-scale is an under-utilised contraption, the kind I feel an innate sympathy for. When I took pity on it I felt self conscious slipping my shoes off and standing on the scale to await the result, but I was rewarded by a quote from Voltaire.
Now it has been replaced by a smaller, digital equivalent, parked beside the chamber of fun-size bars in the Chocolate Factory machine.
Eastlakes shopping centre is a busy place, irrespective of its time-capsule nature. I wonder if, in part, this is because it’s comfortable: worn-in and familiar, an extension of home. Groups of men sit for hours on the brocade chairs, worry beads in their hands, continuing a daily conversation that has spanned years. Before the enhancement of the lounge chairs they’d sat on the benches outside the supermarket and had the same discussions.
Underneath the social ecosystem of Eastlakes Shopping Centre I notice its slow transition into the 21st century. Mostly this means the removal of signs and contraptions: The Super Flipp marble pinball game outside the BKK Supermarket (BKK was the centre’s former name) is gone, for example, as are the video stores.
The Florist sign – a match for Elizabeth Bay Deli – with its curling font and seven digit phone number, has been replaced although the pink and blue teddy bears still watch on from the shelf at the back of the store.
Also replaced is the Eastlakes Sausage, which the deli retired a few years ago in favour of more contemporary signage.
Much, however, has stayed the same. The tiny office of the tax accounts has its framed certificates on the cinder block walls and rows of filing cabinets, as ever.
For clothing, although Jox and Sox is gone, there is still Trendy of Eastlakes.
In the west wing of the centre is the sugary island that is Super Donuts.
And, around the corner from Super Donuts is Unik Fashion and Junior Wear, with its window display of children’s formal clothes, tiny wedding dresses and suits like adult dreams shrunk into miniature.
Things will change slowly here until they change quickly. But I don’t want to think too closely about it; to me Eastlakes is beautiful just as it is.
Santa Claus is back on his throne now, outside of Budget Beaters discount supermarket, and a crying baby is being lifted onto his lap. What’s his name? Santa asks. “Noah,” his mum replies. As I watch her holding her phone out to take a selfie of the three of them, I imagine a future, adult Noah looking at this photo. It’s Christmas in 2040 and places like Eastlakes Shopping Centre are long-gone. The city has been remade. But its old places are held here and there, in snippets, in memories.
The arrow points towards the underground passage, urging me to “Keep on Walking”. Ahead of me is a white-walled tunnel, its curved ceiling and unadorned walls making it more resemble one of the hallways from Star Wars than a pedestrian underpass. There are no advertisements on the walls, no graffiti, just a string of round, black ventilation grilles that look like portholes, and two stripes of fluorescent lights along the ceiling.
This is one of my favourite Sydney tunnels. Its starkness is a respite from the visual clutter of the city, as if I’ve slipped into a connecting piece between the present and the past, or some other kind of Sydney. Even at peak hour it’s not a busy thoroughfare. More often that not I walk through it alone, expecting a band of Stormtroopers to come marching out from exit midway along it. But the only action is the few pedestrians heading between Museum train station and the office buildings above.
The Star Wars connection is not as much of a stretch as it could be: the underpass was built in the late 1970s, around the same time as the film was in cinemas. It was part of the Hyde Park Square development of two office towers and an underground arcade and sunken plaza, all connected to Museum station by the tunnel.
I reach the end of the tunnel and it widens out into a shopping arcade. On one side is one of the few remaining ceramic murals by Vladimir Tichy. It is a long wall of textured, bark-like tiles, with sets of vertical bars made from glazed, white bricks, which look like spears of bamboo, or stalactites on the roof of a cave. On one panel is the marker’s mark, carved in relief into the clay: Designed by V. Tichy, 1977.
Tichy is a ceramic sculptor who came to Australia in 1968 from what was then Czechoslavakia. He set up a studio in Parramatta, from where he produced many large-scale ceramic murals for public and office buildings, RSLs, and civic centres. There were once many Tichy murals in the city, but now the only other ones are in the lobby of Macleay College on Foveux Street, and at the entrance to Newton’s Pharmacy on York Street. The rest have been destroyed as 70s buildings are renovated or demolished.
Beyond the mural is the square itself, a sunken plaza between the two buildings. Designed for office workers’ lunches it had clusters of chairs and tables and a big, curved concrete bench you could either side on the inside or outside of. Now most of the square is taken up by a childcare centre, with soft artificial grass and a sandpit.
Once I reach the square I turn back towards the bright, white tunnel. It hadn’t always been so stark. In the 1982 book Subterranean Sydney by Brian and Barbara Kennedy it is described:
A new sixty-five metre tunnel under Elizabeth Street was opened in 1978 to take pedestrians from the complex to Museum Station. The new tunnel was given a modern-art atmosphere with wide bands of colour. The smooth lining of the tunnel was made of a specially toughened material and was said to be vandal proof.
At first, the white paint seemed to cover the wall panels so well that there was no hint of what colour it must have been before. The white paint extended tightly into the cracks, from floor to ceiling. I stood up close to it, scrutinising its surface, looking for the tiniest flake or chip to reveal the layer behind it. The surface was slightly rough, but uniformly off-white: it gave nothing away. I stepped back and looked around the tunnel, towards the side exit. Here a metal arrow on a pillar gestured obscurely to the right, devoid of any other guiding information.
I looked back to the white walls of the tunnel and saw something I had not yet noticed. Just visible was a slight change in texture, in the shape of a diagonal line. I followed it with my eyes. Near the curve of the ceiling another line intersected it at right angles. Then another line intersected that. I walked slowly along the tunnel, my eyes on the lines, and they came into life, diagonal stripes and squares. All of a sudden I notice a line of scraped marks at the bottom of one of the panels, which revealed slivers of bright green underneath the white coating. The next panel was scraped too, revealing yellow.
As I stood in the white tunnel it flooded into colour in my mind’s eye. Diagonal bands of green and yellow came into bloom. I felt a transformation come over me, too, as if I could, in that moment, see through time. Opening my notebook, I quickly sketched out the lines and shapes.
It’s a busy time in the world of Mirror Sydney, with the book newly released. Here are the talks and events I’ll be doing over the next few months, sharing stories from the book and the blog.
Until October 22nd, Mirror Sydney Maps, 55 Sydenham Road, Marrickville. An exhibition of original maps and illustrations from Mirror Sydney. Gallery is open Sat-Sun, 1-5pm.
October 14th, 12:30pm, Artspace Woolloomooloo: Reading at the Volume Book Art Fair. I’ll also be having a stall at the fair from Friday 13th – Sunday 15th, with copies of Mirror Sydney and a limited edition print from the book. More information on the fair here.
October 17th Sydney Launch of Mirror Sydney – Booked out, I’m sorry!
October 28th: Melbourne Launch of Mirror Sydney at Embiggen Books, 197-203 Lt Lonsdale Street.
November 1st, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry, at the Sydney Mechanic School of Arts Library. 12:30 – 1:30pm, Mitchell Theatre.
November 4th, Writing Place in Fiction and Nonfiction, one-day writing course at the NSW Writer’s Centre.
November 28th, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry at Cronulla Library, 6.30pm-7.30pm
December 5th, Mirror Sydney with Vanessa Berry at Rockdale Library, 6pm – 7pm.
I have some more events in the planning, too, and of course more stories to tell you, here on the blog and in person.
First up… Opening this week is an exhibition of the maps from the book of Mirror Sydney, at 55 Sydenham Road gallery in Marrickville. Come for a stroll past the Sydenham Reservoir, and drop by the opening, this Thursday, 5th October, 6-8pm, to see the maps of Parramatta Road, mystery structures, memorial stores, community noticeboards, and other urban and suburban curiousities that are featured in the book.
Then, on October 17th, is the book launch for Mirror Sydney, which will be held at one of my favourite central city landmarks: the CTA Building in Martin Place, in the subterranean bar. The book will be launched by Peter Doyle, of City of Shadows and The Big Whatever fame. BOOKED OUT I’m sorry!
With the reappearance of the Peapes sign at Wynyard has come a wave of interest in Sydney’s ghost signs. A gift to the city wanderer who thinks to look up, these traces of a city past lurk on the facades and side walls of city commercial buildings and former suburban grocers. They are uncovered during demolitions and disappear again as new buildings are constructed. Some are painted over, others are repainted and restored, but most continue to slowly fade until they become indecipherable.
Over the five years I have been writing Mirror Sydney, I have recorded as many as I have come across, to make up this gallery of 100 Sydney ghost signs from the city and the suburbs. Some remain, others have disappeared, and others will, with time, reveal themselves.
For more on ghost signs, I recommend Nick Gadd’s excellent blogs on Melbourne and Mildura, the Ghost Signs Australia blog, Ghost Signs UK and the books Signs of the Times by Geoff Hocking, and the forthcoming Signs of Australia by Brady Michaels and Dale Campisi.