Our Berta’s Corner

As Rocky Point Road continues on to the bridge over the Georges River, a side road leads off to the left, following the shoreline of the bay, into the suburb of Sans Souci. Red-brick apartment buildings give way to vacant lots with sandy soil showing through underneath the grass. Then a row of houses begins in the contemporary mansion/fortress style, monoliths painted grey or beige.

A few blocks along, on a corner, there’s a different kind of house, one that stands out in a blaze of colour. The roof of the fibro cottage here has the tiles painted yellow, blue and green, so it looks like a patchwork or a crochet blanket. It’s bright as a toy among the serious houses that surround it.

This house has long been a San Souci landmark. Local news reports have told the story of its colourful roof, painted by John Hall as a tribute to his wife Berta, who died in 1997. The tiles, he said, could “be seen from heaven so Berta can look down and see how much I love her”.

Over the last few weeks, the house and this story have been in the news again, for now John has passed away and the house is for sale. A placard for the auction is pegged into the ground out the front, beside the letterbox and the sign with the hand-painted legend, “Our Berta’s Corner”, at the corner of the fence. The house is vacant, empty, its curtains pulled back from the windows. An open eye, it watches over the flat waters of the bay.

The notice for the auction stops people in their tracks. Walkers on the path pause to read it. Drivers slow their cars as they pass by. The impending sale has made the house an available place for people to sow their dreams. I look past the real estate sign to the geraniums and agapanthus planted in the garden, to the lucky horseshoe nailed to the carport, and the wooden weathervane on top of the backyard granny-flat, in the shape of a duck, the house number, 22, painted on its tail. Even without knowing the story of John and Berta Hall, its details are of a house that has been lived in with love.

I turn my attention back to the real estate sign, which has as its image an aerial photograph of the corner, with a red rectangle drawn around the lot, to show potential purchasers the size of the land. The effect is surely unintended, but it also shows what John Hall had for decades imagined, his Berta looking down from above, seeing the patchwork roof, and knowing that she was loved and remembered.

 

Thanks to Andrew C. for sending the link to the newspaper story.

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Gould’s Book Arcade

When people enter Gould’s Book Arcade on north King Street, Newtown, for the first time, they walk in a few steps then pause, beholding the complex interior. Like an M.C Escher puzzle, Gould’s is a maze of books, a million of them or more, extending back in rows for as far as the eye can see. There looks to be no end to the books, that they might stretch back to infinity. But Gould’s Book Arcade is at an end, at least in its current form. Its last day at its present location, where it has been for 29 years, is this Sunday. Then the moving and downsizing begins, as the store moves on to smaller premises at the south end of King Street.

A sign at the entrance announces that there’s a moving sale: 50% off. I pause, as I always do, to take in the scene of plenitude. I’m standing under the painted copy of the Diego Rivera mural, Man at the Crossroads, that hangs on a side wall. Rivera’s original mural had been painted in the lobby of the main building of the Rockerfeller Center in 1933, only to be destroyed, chipped off the wall for its communist themes, as Rivera refused to remove the portrait of Lenin.

The replica mural in Gould’s Books is a statement of intent: Bob Gould’s name is equally as connected with left-wing politics as bookselling. An entire wing of the store is stocked with political books with titles like Dynamics of World Revolution Today and Socialism and Survival. Although Bob Gould died in 2011, after a fall in the shop, his political legacy, and his bookstore, live on.

Gould’s has its own topography. The heights of the mezzanine level with its view over the landscape of shelves below; the gloomy recesses of the Australiana aisle, where I activate the torch on my phone to crawl around on the lowest levels, in search of 1970s Sydney photobooks; the narrow aisles of “serious fiction”; and the Cat Pathway at the back of the store, the only surface where there isn’t a stack of books, although the cat is no longer in residence.

In one of the many news articles that were published last year, when news of the store’s relocation was announced, the sad tale of the cat – run over – was revealed. The articles ran to the same theme, differently inflected depending on the political leanings of the newspaper. There is no longer space in gentrified Newtown for huge, rambling bookstores.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Gould’s, even in its last days. The stock has only barely perceptibly thinned-out. I follow my usual route, down through the arts and crafts books, Introduction to Copper Tooling, How to Make Stained Glass Lampshades, then into the Feminist section, with its row of dark green Virago editions with bitten apples as their logos, then on through fiction, and upstairs, past the political books, to the very front corner. Here Karl Marx watches over me as I flip through the 80s-era posters of puppies, tall ships, and star signs (only Pisces and Sagittarius remain).

During a deep session in Gould’s, time seems to dissolve. It is many hours later when I emerge blinking back out on the street, and wait for the bus home under the red sign and the faded, peeling movie posters that have canopied the street for decades. The names of some can still be made out but most, by now, have worn away.


The Chiswick Arches

By the time I reach the end of Blackwall Point Road in Chiswick, the view of the harbour expands to a panorama. I’m facing north, towards the concrete arch of the Gladesville Bridge, and to the east, a glimpse of the Harbour Bridge can be seen above the trees. On this sunny day, the water sparkles, and the yachts moored on it hint at the leisurely life that is one of the city’s presiding dreams.

But there’s something in the foreground that’s distracting me from this wide harbour view. It came into sight after the final rise, where the road widens to make a bus terminus and turning-circle. A curved strip of shops, with ten concrete loops dividing up the awnings, like a row of dropped stitches.

The shopping centre was built in 1972, after a former box factory site on the headland was developed into apartment buildings in 1968. An advertisement from 1972 suggested it was suitable for a “milk bar, butcher’s shop, supermarket (with liquor supply), greengrocer, chemist and delicatessen”, although no mention was made of its unusual design. The same copywriter described the features of the apartments: every apartment was “picture window equipped”, and promised “quiet living midst gardens and trees”.

They were right about the quiet. As I walk past the brick apartment buildings of Bortfield Drive, there’s barely anyone out, just a woman reading a book on her balcony, and a man walking a bug-eyed spaniel towards the waterside park. I take the path into a slip of park now called Armitage Reserve. The headland, with its apartment complexes, interspersed by small reserves with colonial names, has been divided up like a pie. Its abiding identity is Wangal country, the clan whose lands are the southern side of the Parramatta River, the clan of Bennelong.

There’s a concrete path along the foreshore and I follow it, looking out over the sparkling water, towards the facing headland, and then back to the details of the apartment buildings beside me. Two ducks float in a chlorine-blue pool; a grove of agave plants grow unchecked at the edge of a mowed lawn; an unsympathetically pruned frangipani tree produces a shadow in the shape of a cat.

When this area was developed, it was a peak time for breezeblocks, those ornamental brick feature walls that augmented so many domestic structures in the 1950s and 60s, and connote an endless suburban summer. When, years ago, I found out they were called breezeblocks, after them being so ubiquitous in my surroundings that I didn’t even think of them as a separate entity, I thought it a perfect name. As a breeze is a soft, compliant thing, as is the ease of life that a breezeblock structure hoped to produce.

The path loops around and I find myself back at the shops, where a bus is waiting, in between trips, its engine idling. Taped to one of the poles is a lost pet poster, for a lorikeet, with a photograph of the bird and a phone number to call in case of a sighting. As I read this, shrill sounds from above make me look up, and I see a flock of rainbow lorikeets flying over, dozens of them, towards the boughs of a blue gum tree, where they disappear into the leaves.

Back along Blackwall Point Road there’s a small, old store, with ads for tea painted on the side.The shop has been closed for more than 30 years, but was once run by the Tulley brothers, whose name remains on the awning, L. Tulley, General Storekeepers, Est. 1928. The shop is bookended by tea advertisements: Bushells on one side, LanChoo on the other.

On the Lan Choo side is a giant packet of tea, as big as a fridge, its claims to quality, economy and quick infusion carefully repainted by the team that restored the signs in 2004. A photograph exists of the Tulley brothers standing inside their store in 1987, Jim, age 83 and Bill, age 78, surrounded by the products that made up everyday life, such as Pascall Chocolate Eclairs (35c), packets of Bex ($1.50), and Tom Piper canned meats ($1.10). 

The curtains are drawn across the windows, and the frosted glass gives no glimpse of the interior. When I go to peek inside, there’s not even the smallest gap to look through, and a handwritten sign, in capital letters with curled edges, tells me politely that the store is closed.

I walk on, past the houses with their breezeblock fences, and their miscellany of decorative details (red brick, iron lace, spiral stairs, classical statues). One house has a magnolia tree with boughs that stretch halfway across the driveway, obstructing one of the doors of the double garage. The tree is in full bud, about to erupt into flowers, as winter wanes, and warm days return.


The Ming On Building

Marrickville’s most striking building is painted a breath-mint green. Two pointed fins rise up from the roof like the tips of sails. The fins slope down into a protruding, triangular block at the centre of the facade, forming an angular nose. Attached to the windows of the nose are advertisements for washing powder that have, over years, faded from red to grey.


In the last week new signs have gone up, signs for the impending auction of the two warehouses that make up the green building: “Invest, Occupy or Redevelop”. It’s the last option that has Marrickvillians nervous. The building is a landmark, a moment of novelty among the otherwise functional architecture that surrounds it.

For decades the building has been occupied by Ming On Trading, a retailer and wholesaler of sewing accessories: buttons, zippers, threads, labels. An arrangement of boxes inside the entrance displays some of the miscellaneous goods that Ming On trades in. Tubs of washing powder are stacked up, there are plastic baskets of socks and sticky tape, bird cages hang from the ceiling. Further inside, almost the whole lower floor of the showroom is dedicated to sewing thread. The metal shelving makes narrow aisles, lined with a rainbow of reels of thread. Unspool it all and it would reach to the moon.

The Ming On building is the kind of place that people stop to notice, photograph, and wonder about. What could be inside this bright, strange building? It’s vernacular value is high, but in other systems of worth – architectural, historical – it has left few traces. I find a newspaper article about a fire on the site in 1970, which destroyed the two existing factory buildings: the current building must have risen from these ashes. In the early 1980s, ads for Pacific Furniture exalt the new, unique dynamic collections of lounge furniture available at their showroom there. Then, later, come references Ming On Trading Co. Pty Ltd.

The style of the building – like a rectangle has swallowed a triangle – is less 1970s-functional, more a kind of industrial Googie, the post-war, space-age American architectural style that was given to Californian diners and petrol stations. There’s no functional reason for its preposterous outfit, the fins on its roof and bright green coat, but therein lies its charm, and people’s sense of delight and connection. It’s a reminder of the importance of eccentric spaces, in a city where, increasingly, the oddities are being ironed out.

Inside Ming On Trading, business continues as usual among the millions of buttons and racks of lace trims. Once the building is sold, Ming On will move south west, to Villawood, but apart from the real estate signs out the front, there’s little indication of the change. Heading up to the top floor, I start up the central stairs, pausing at the landing in the middle. I’m inside the triangle that forms the building’s nose, looking out towards Addison Road through the angled windows. Across the road, I notice a woman has stopped walking to reach into her bag. She looks over towards the Ming On building, with its fins and bright green paint, holds up her phone and takes a photo of it, a bittersweet expression on her face.


Marrickville Mona Lisa

On an upstairs window of a long-closed shop on Marrickville Road is the fading painted sign for the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. Its cracked silver lettering makes me think of a logo on a 1950s powder compact, silver letters on a pink plastic case. I imagine that the interior of the photography studio might continue in this powdery style: white carpet, chairs with spindly, gold-painted frames and fluffy pink upholstery, gladioli in a tall glass vase.

At street level, in a stripe above the entrance, are more signs, some in Greek, others in English: another for the Mona Lisa, and one for Finix Discount House, with an illustration of an ascending golden phoenix to accompany it. I peer inside. The two showcase windows to either side of the door are empty, but further back inside the store is a pile of leftover objects: chairs, debris, bedspreads compressed into squares and wrapped in plastic.

The yellow-striped wallpaper is peeling, and wires hang down from the roof, but the space doesn’t quite seem abandoned. A ladder and a broom are propped up against the wall as if at any moment someone might come in and resume the task of clearing out the store. I could see a row of signs on the windows for Blankets, Carpets, Gifts and Crystal. With each word I imagine the store in its heyday, the topography of soft or glistening objects that would have made up its interior. Things bought here would still be in people’s houses, or have recirculated through op shops, or remain at the back of cupboards, never-used wedding presents from decades before.

I am being watched: from the tiled stairwell at the side of the store hangs a framed print of the Mona Lisa. She looks in my direction serenely, with her seeing-but-not-seeing expression, from the wall-mounted glass cabinet lined with flocked wallpaper where she has been, for decades, encased.

A handpainted sign in English and Greek above the cabinet directs all photography enquiries to the shop downstairs. I stumble my eyes over ΦΩΤΟΓΡΑΦΕΙΟ, decoding it as “photography”. I don’t read or speak Greek so later, when I am back home, I type the words on the sign into an online translation site and they come out, after auto-correction of the text, as “information about the photography lost under the story”. I like it. For as I stand peering through the metal grille that seals the premises off from the street, I dream up stories about the Mona Lisa Photographic Studio. I think of the carefully dressed people who once climbed the stairs, walking up towards the portrait photographs that were soon to be taken of them, preserving that day, that moment.

***

(Those with Marrickville connections might be interested in the Marrickville Map  I made, which includes the Mona Lisa among other landmarks.)


Odd Jobs in the City

In 1950, the Smith’s Weekly newspaper published a series of profiles of city workers titled ‘Men in Odd Jobs’. The first article appeared in July, profiling Mr J.A. Sinclair, who spent his days testing lawn bowls for accuracy. Next readers met a skeleton articulator at the Australian Museum. Then a man who drills holes in buttons: Mr Ern Sheather who confides that “drilling holes in buttons is soothing to the nerves”. In September, under the headline He Frightens Spiders, was the story of an instrument maker who places spider webs in the theodolites used by surveyors for measuring angles.

Reading these articles now is to imagine a city where such obscure pastimes had cause to exist: a man could spend his working days creating bows for ladies shoes, or changing the dates on the stamps used for franking mail. Job satisfaction in these roles was generally high. Mr Desmond Russell found a job that suited him in turning mail bags inside out and, in the final article of the series, in the final edition of Smiths in October 1950, Mr Leslie Stanley, cable joiner, praised the “interesting and absorbing” work he did laying cables underneath the city streets. The job could also be entertaining, as he was able to overhear conversations from the street above through the manholes. The article quotes Mr Stanley:

One day two men were standing outside the Commonwealth Bank in Pitt Street, when one of them dropped his keys down an open grate. He was in a terrible state, and began to wonder how he would carry on his work.

His friend said it would be possible to get police to remove the grate. Just as they began to panic, my mate poked the keys back through the grate with two fingers.

The men stopped talking and gaped at the fingers with the keys dangling. They couldn’t see us below, but we could see them in the daylight.

One man said: ‘Look, a human hand and alive.’ The other snatched the keys with out saying a word and went for his life.

I can imagine this was a story Mr Stanley told often, relishing the description of the fingers poking up through the manhole, working up to the delivery of the “Look, it’s a human hand and alive!” punchline.

Another method of retrieving keys, 1942 (photo National Library of Australia)

There are fourteen “odd jobs” stories in all. Of these, four relate to postal and telephone services. In addition to the Inside-Out-Bag Turner, the man who maintains the machine that produces the dial-tone, the franking-stamp changer, and the man who opens the door of the vault in the Bank of NSW, is the one woman featured in the series, Miss Mary Sprague.

Miss Sprague had the unusual job of reading the time live at the Sydney GPO, which housed the city’s central telephone switchboard. Before the installation of a mechanical ‘speaking clock’ in 1954, the job was done by a group of women who took turns in sitting in front of a clock, reciting the time into a microphone. Miss Mary Sprague explained how the intensity of the task made it difficult to read for more than 20 minutes at a time.

I’d never thought that such a job as time-reading would have been done live, but in the days before digital timekeeping it could be difficult to maintain accurate time on mechanical clocks and watches. When people wanted to check if their watch was correct, they called the service, dialling BO74. Up to 20,000 people would call daily and it was particularly busy around 5pm, as people hoped their watches were running slowly, and the time to leave work had already come.

The article on Mary Sprague was the first of the “odd jobs” series I read. I found it while researching an essay I’ve written for Time and Memory, a new book published by the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences. A few months after I read the article about Mary Sprague in Smiths Weekly, I was doing a reading at the Paragon Cafe in Katoomba. I mentioned the essay I was writing to Robyn, the cafe owner.

“Wouldn’t you believe it”, I said, “women at the GPO used to read the time live!”

“You’ll have to speak to our friend Joyce,” Robyn said, “she used to do that job.”

Speak to Joyce I did indeed, and you can read my interview with her at Reading the Time with Joyce Thomson, on the museum’s blog. When I spoke to Joyce, who is now in her 80s, she described how it had felt to move to the city, from Katoomba, as a young woman in the late 1940s. The scale of life opened up for her and there were possibilities all around. By reading the time at the GPO she joined the ranks of those in the city doing an unusual job. Now, like most of the jobs that Smiths Weekly reported on in 1950, this job has slipped from public knowledge, long-since having been technologically superseded. But just enough of a trace of it exists, for it to be remembered.


Post-It Notes: The 3M building

The two main roads that cut through Pymble cross over in a complex intersection. Ryde Road undercuts the Pacific Highway in a tunnel, with slip roads filtering traffic between them. To one side of the intersection the train line runs across on an elevated track. There’s a thin strip of land beside the railway, with such businesses as a drive-in dry cleaners and a mini-golf putting green, with a course of astroturf winding around a landscape, decorated by a jolly fibreglass elephant amid chunks of sandstone.

On the other side of the highway the land slopes downwards, leading into a valley. On the north west side there’s a screen of tall trees, and behind it a long, curved building, nestled into the corner, tucked down below the level of the road. Built in 1968 as the Australian headquarters for 3M, the five-storey office building combines pale concrete columns with darker panels of rough concrete aggregate, like two contrasting threads woven into a grid. Its design echoes some of the city office buildings that were built with a similar curved shape, the best known being the AMP building that faces Circular Quay and was, in the early 1960s when it opened, the tallest building in the city.

The 3M building was much smaller, but was nevertheless striking in its aspect, set as it is below the level of the road, so the upper storeys, visible from the highway, seem to hover in space. Whenever going past it I would look over towards the red 3M sign on the roof and imagine the plentiful post-it notes and rolls of tape that would be in their stationery cupboards. I would think of the story of the invention of the post-it note: a 3M scientist wanted to create a strong, tough adhesive, but instead created a weak one that could be peeled easily off surfaces. He didn’t know how to apply his invention until he spoke to another scientist at the company, who had the problem of keeping bookmarks from sliding out of his hymn book. From this the post-it note was born.

Now the sign has been stripped from the roof and the building has been empty for seven years, as the local council and Bunnings, the purchasers of the site in 2012, argue about whether the building is to be retained or demolished.

The longer is it vacant, the more it falls into disrepair. Graffiti has accumulated on the walls, and the first floor windows are cracked and broken where rocks have been thrown at them. It’s a building I’ve only ever seen through a car or train window, in motion, from afar. I feel a sense of unreality as I approach it, as if I’ve stepped into a photograph. All of a sudden the scale changes and I see the height of the building in comparison to my body, rather than the surrounding scene of the highway and the traffic.

The back of the building faces onto a high wall reinforced by concrete slabs, above which is the highway, hidden by a screen of gum trees, present only as a groaning rush of cars and trucks. Down herel the grass is long and the ivy at the bottom of the embankment grows thickly. As I advance a brown rabbit darts out from the ivy and bounces away, its white tail bobbing against the green. The garden is lush and vital compared to the still, solid presence of the building, heavy with the undisturbed air captured inside it.

On the far side is a path that leads up to the highway. A camellia tree is in full bloom, the smell of its pink flowers sweetening the air. The path continues down around to the entrance, and I realise that in seeing the building from the road, I only ever saw it from the back. From the front, the curve of the building has a gathering effect, like it has curled in on itself to hold its contents in tightly. Most of the windows have the blinds drawn down, but through those that don’t I see the outlines of office furniture inside, the square ghostly shapes of tables and cabinets.

I approach the front doors and look inside. In a pair of mirrored interior doors a few metres in from where I stand I see my reflection, a woman in a navy blue dress and spotted scarf.

It is as if I’ve come for a job interview thirty years too late, and found the building vacant. I’m here but everyone has gone. There’s only the rabbits and the birds now, and hedges grown into wild, irregular shapes, and tendrils of ivy inching up the building’s concrete ribs.