Signs go up in shop windows, announcing relocation, or the final sale, then the buildings stand empty. Nothing happens for a while, and it seems like maybe nothing will. But one day the demolition team arrives and begins to take the buildings down. The first thing they do is take off the awnings, so the buildings have a stripped look, pared back to the bricks. Where the awnings used to be attached a stripe of plaster, or brick, or sometimes the old signs of former businesses are revealed.
In Five Dock the strip of shops on the corner of Great North Road and East Street is the site of the new Metro station. The shops have been vacated, and the awnings removed to begin the process of demolition.
Above 163, a stretch of blue-painted sky is revealed, under which a cruise ship sails and an aeroplane lifts off. Not just any aeroplane: its distinctive wing shape and beak-like nose identify it as the luxury supersonic passenger jet, the Concorde. A trip on the Concorde was a journey like no other. Travelling at twice the speed of sound you would nevertheless be in perfect comfort, sipping French champagne. Smoked salmon and foie gras was for entree, lobster Newberg for main, and heart of palm for dessert, as you flew swift and supersonic over the ocean.
Mostly the Concorde flew the transatlantic route, between London and New York. But in 1985 the Concorde made a special record-breaking flight from London to Sydney. This was the second time a Concorde had made this journey. The first time had been for a publicity tour in 1972, when the jet was met by aviation enthusiasts as well as protesters, who carried signs that read ‘Ban the Boom’, ‘Doomsday Plane’ and ‘Atomic Fart’. Powerful jet engines and its distinctive shape gave the Concorde the ability to travel at such high speeds, but created a loud, startling sonic boom in its wake. As peaceful as it was for the passengers, on the ground below windows shook with a sound as loud and startling as an explosion.
In 1985, soon after landing, the crew were photographed on the boarding stairs holding bunches of flowers and a giant cardboard pocket watch, displaying their arrival time of 4pm, commemorating their record-breaking 17-hour flight. While this was happening, the Concorde’s passengers were transported to the harbour to start the next leg of their journey, on the QE2 cruise liner. This liner was the slow-going but sumptuous ocean equivalent of the Concorde, then the grandest, as well as one of the largest, cruise ships in the world. Fireworks and a lavish Valentines Day ball awaited them.
In Five Dock, I imagine the artist who painted the sign above the travel agency on Great North Road, up on a ladder, carefully at work, perhaps with this event in mind, and all that it promised for the future of luxury travel. The artist paints in a pale blue sky, and clouds trailing like streamers above the cruise ship. Birds flock around the ship’s hull and silhouettes of people cluster on the deck, looking over towards where the Concorde ascends. They were not to know the Concorde would only ever visit Sydney occasionally, before a devastating crash in France in 2000 would put an end to supersonic passenger travel. The skies were clear, the ocean wide.
The Pacific Highway meets the Gore Hill Freeway in a confusion of off and on ramps. On the Artarmon side of the intersection is a large Spanish Mission hotel now called the Shore Apartments. In the 70s they were the Shore Motel, advertised as “like a city in itself”, offering ‘Parisian Elegance’ and ‘Isle of Capri Escapades’. The Shore remains a highway oasis of palm trees and white stucco archways, a European holiday resort stranded in the wrong hemisphere.
On the other side of the freeway overpass is a block of old shops earmarked for demolition. This assorted bunch of structures once contained a boating store, a cluttered factory seconds place and a construction firm, but now are hung with banners for a new development. The ads promise “city meets village lifestyle” in the new 1, 2 and 3 bedroom apartments that will be built there.
It’s reaching the end of a Sunday afternoon and the light is golden, the shadows long. I drive past the Shore Apartments but can’t pay too much attention to the Parisian elegance as I’m watching the lane markings to avoid being drawn down onto the freeway. The freeway is quicker but I feel compelled to take the highway today. I like its curves and details, and travel it so infrequently that something is different every time.
A message from the past has reappeared. The banners on the front of the buildings might promote “village lifestyle”, but on the side is a flashback to DEFENDER SLUG AND SNAIL KILLER, in neat block letters underneath a line of metal flashing remaining from the building that once stood beside it.
In front of this old battle slogan is the concrete and flattened dirt of the recently cleared lot. It doesn’t look like a place where there would be much of a threat from slugs or indeed any creatures at all. Yet the sign gives me cause to imagine them. In particular I imagine the future, when the residents of the apartments find themselves dreaming of snails, mysteriously and incessantly. They google “snail dream meaning” and ponder the sensitivity and vulnerability it symbolises, but it’s to the power of the ghost sign their dreams really refer.