When I first saw it on the map I thought I’d misread it: Grand Flaneur Beach. The beach was on the shore of the lake at the edge of Chipping Norton, the location marked with a green pin with a beach umbrella inside it. It seemed unlikely for a number of reasons, firstly for being a beach far from the ocean, and secondly being named “flâneur” (but without its circumflex accent hat over the ‘a’) a word which brings to mind images of 19th-century Parisian dandies rather than the south western suburbs of Sydney. A flâneur is an urban stroller, someone with no particular place to be, for whom just being out observing is a full occupation. What kind of beach would a flâneur – a grand one at that – give their name to?
The place known as Chipping Norton is an area of land enclosed by Tucoerah/ Georges River, the river that divides Dharug land to the north of the waterway, from Dharawal land to the south. The river curves around, turning back on itself, and at the turn it swells out into a lake, inside which are a number of small islands. The river has flowed for thousands of years, but the lake is only a few decades old. In the mid-twentieth century, the land was extensively mined for sand, and by the 1970s resembled a “bomb-blasted” scene, scarred by the disused pits of the sand mines. A plan was drawn up to flood the area, and transform it to what the Minister for Public Works in 1987 decreed would be “an aquatic wonderland of the west”.
This wonderland was quiet in winter. It was the end of June when I visited, a time when the days were cold and short, leading up to the shortest day of the year. The city was waking up a little from the first wave of the pandemic and a few people were out, but those who were kept their distance from each other. I turned off from the streets of sensible brick suburban houses and into the parkland. Grand Flaneur Beach is marked by a plain, solid road-sign, pegged into the ground on a small clearing amid the lawn that leads down to the lake.
I walked down to the water’s edge, to the strip of sand churned by footprints. I’d read that sometimes bull sharks swim up into the lake to breed, and I imagined I might see a fin above the water, gliding along, although this is a rare event, and there were only ducks to be seen on the surface on this afternoon. The lake was calm, a plain, but peaceful place to be. I sat on the lawn looking over it, pouring out a cup of tea from a thermos. As I put a slice of the lemon cake I’d brought with me onto a plate I heard an unfamiliar sound, and looked up.
The buzz overhead was a light plane flying over, after having taken off from the nearby Bankstown Airport. It had been a while since I’d noticed a plane, it being months into the travel bans, and I sat and watched the plane progress over the blue canvas of the sky until my view of it was blocked by the trees. As I watched the plane, a myna bird hopped up and started to peck at the cake, bold with the experience of many Grand Flaneur Beach picnics.
Why was the beach called this? There was nothing I could detect that solved the mystery. Who was the grand flâneur? Was it me? As much as I liked to think so, the truth was otherwise.
Grand Flaneur was a horse. A champion stallion, winner of all the major races, including the Melbourne Cup, and unbeaten upon his retirement from racing in 1881. Grand Flaneur was owned by the politician and horse-racing-enthusiast William Long, who established racing stables here, and gave the place its colonial name of Chipping Norton. The stables and racecourse that still operate at Warwick Farm had their beginnings in those days. William Long loved horses and horse-racing, but apparently he did not much like women, and it is said that he didn’t even allow women to come onto this Chipping Norton property that he held by the river.
But, well, there I was. Sitting by the side of an artificial lake, by a beach that is named after a racehorse. I was thinking about being a flâneur, about walking and observing, as the bird pecked at my cake, and another plane buzzed over above. The plane brought me back to thoughts of the pandemic and all that had changed in the months preceding me coming there. As the fear and the changes had taken hold people had asked me how this time would affect my investigations of Sydney. I wondered this too, and I still do. But I know that I’m attracted to quiet, unusual, and underpopulated places, the kind that persist despite the city changing around them, or that are hidden in plain sight, yet are not often given attention. These are the places I go in search of, and even in difficult, restricted times, they are to be found.
In the 1980s a number of board games were produced in the “This is Your Town” series. The streets and businesses of the Sydney suburban centres of Liverpool and Parramatta became a game board, over which players travelled by the roll of a dice. But rather than the Mayfair and Piccadilly of Monopoly, the Liverpool Game included such destinations as the Jolly Frog Dry Cleaners, Funtasia toy shop, and Olga’s and Trendy beauty salon.
Unfolding the Liverpool Game board from the box it forms a solid, green rectangle, as if Liverpool is a large park with occasional Letraset trees and the featured local businesses. To the far left of the board is a big question mark, intended for the pile of “surprise cards” that send you to the post office to pick up a parcel, or to the photo shop to pick up your framed enlargement.
It is utterly unlikely that any of the businesses featured in the game are still there in Liverpool today. The game was produced in 1983, and the hair salons, restaurants and photo processing stores are among the more ephemeral of businesses. But I couldn’t ignore the question mark. I photocopied the game board into a pocket sized version and set out for Liverpool.
Just outside Liverpool train station a large blackboard is propped up against the fence of the adjacent parking lot. At the top is stencilled “My Wish for Liverpool is” and below a mess of chalk inscriptions, from earnest wishes for better schools and cheaper train fares, requests for more love in the community and “no creeps”. More vulgar wishes are half-obscured, rubbed out by a censoring hand, although “Fuck Tony Abbott” is clearly visible in the top right corner.
I consult my photocopied game board. There are a few paths I could choose and I select Scott Street. The first business on the map, the Balkan Travel Service, is now an adult shop. Nearby Lilleyman’s Florist, which reminded us on its “surprise card” that “Flowers add a little sunshine to our lives”, has had its multicoloured sign obscured by subsequent tenants. There are signs for a pentacostal church and the “Fiji Curry Hut” although the shop is vacant when I peer through the window. After a few more streets of faithfully following the locations it is clear that this obscured Florist sign is one of the few remaining traces of the Liverpool Game businesses. Apart from the historic buidings, a persistent tobacconist on Macquarie Street, and the relocated but still jovial Jolly Frog dry cleaners on Memorial Drive, everything else has disappeared.
The game changes. I stop looking for traces and observe the Liverpool that surrounds me. The streets are still lined with small shops, sari shops and Indian grocery stores. The memorial fruit market has bright painted signs with names printed beside giant apples and pears, “joe”, “nancy”, perhaps the people who worked at the store at the time of painting. At the end of the road is the Westfield shopping centre, which has grown since the 1980s to gobble up a number of the streets from the Liverpool Game. I walk around its perimeter, alongside the windowless beige wall with occasional exits to the carpark, which I peek into nervously, as cars appear suddenly, as if spat out from the building’s interior.
Behind the Westfield is one of Liverpool’s heritage sites. They are easy to spot as all of them – the old court house, Saint Lukes Church – are resolutely fenced off from the street and its wanderers. This one is a cemetery, where gravestones poke out of the soil in crooked rows. They look stark without flowers or memorials, the graves so old that there must be few people left to visit them. While there are people around, most of them moving back and forth between the shopping centre entrance, this is a lonely stretch of road. The ramparts of the Westfield are on one side and the rows of gravestones on the other. At the corner is the Lifeline op shop. Among a row of potplants at the entrance one is labelled the “Trinidad Scorpion – the world’s hottest chilli”, though the pot contains an agapanthus. The equivalent, perhaps, of buying a Prince record from an op shop and finding a Herb Alpert one inside.
On the other side of the Westfield a half-hidden old milestone is a reminder of Sydney, 20 miles away. A neat arrow, carved into the sandstone, politely points north. The milestone is among the shrubs in a strip of ornamental planting outside the Spectrum Way, a row of shops the includes among its tenants the “Cinema 5D”. Behind this unassuming shopfront are multidimensional experiences in zombieland, post apocalyptic cities and other extraordinary scenarios.
I stick with the real world and head up towards the pedestrian mall. At one end there are groups of men playing chess, clustered around tables with black and white chequered squares inlaid into them. Another group of onlookers surrounds the players at the giant chess board as one of them strides forward to claim his opponent’s pawn. It’s a serious pursuit and the clustered observers notice little but the arrangements of the black and white figures and the movements of the players.
Beside the chess players is a patch of lawn which is covered by a flock of corellas, the cheeky white cockatoos with pink eyes like they’ve stayed up too late the night before. They are waddling over the grass, digging holes in it with their beaks. The lawn is pock-marked with holes and still the corellas continue to dig, as if after buried treasure. The air smells of damp soil and people passing by watch the birds’ rampage over the lawn, but no one chases them away.
Like other suburban centres and indeed much of Sydney once you get to thinking about it, Liverpool attracts plenty of plans and discussions for how it can be revitalised. The town centre has, according to one city councillor, a “decidedly Soviet appearance”. It does indeed have its fair share of concrete and monuments, if that is what the councillor is referring to. There is, for example, a large, steampunk effigy of Lachlan Macquarie, poised on the edge of the shopping district. The police station also has a certain stern quality about it.
Of all places in Liverpool, Bigge Park has the highest concentration of monuments. Trees planted in commemoration, memorial rocks, and at the park’s centre a clock tower erected by Rotary in the 1950s. If you were floating above Liverpool you would notice that the clock and the path around it is designed to form the shape of the Rotary wheel logo.
Another monument, although unintended as such, is the pylons which span the Georges River. They curve across the water, next to the weir where the water spills down over the constructed ledge. Alongside the train line the river is like a deep breath, a break from the outer suburban landscape of factories and houses. Beside it the grass is worn down with desire paths, but there are few people walking on this weekday afternoon.
The weir was first built in the 1830s by convict labour but the pylons beside it are a more recent addition, and once supported a railway bridge. They are grand in the way of abandoned infrastructure, left there for the pleasure of their geometry in this ragtag scene. They’re part of a complex landscape, at turns natural and ruined, constructed and contested. It’s peaceful to look out over the river, but it’s also a view of factories and the motorway, the trash snagged around the base of the pylons and the spraypainted tag – CRIMS – across the concrete. Like so many Sydney places, Liverpool is a mixture of preservation and obliteration, of residual remains and repurposings, and construction sites starting again.
In the Liverpool Game one of the destination cards is for the technical college, now the TAFE. The college, the card says, will assist you to continue your education “to make your life more meaningful and interesting”. This seems to me the true aim of the game for the visitor, thirty years on with a photocopied map in her pocket. To be alert to the meaningful and interesting places, and in doing so make another Liverpool Game, one that shifts and changes as the place itself does. To complete the game is to observe Liverpool’s details and tensions and dig down a little, like the cheeky corellas, and think what might be hidden there.