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.
Summer in the Sydney suburbs brings still hot days and long afternoons when the hours seem to move slowly in the humid air. On the hottest of days there can seem to be little respite, and the only thing that might offer some relief is a cool drink from the Mixed Business on the corner, a big BIG drink.
Of all advertisements Coca Cola’s are the most ubiquitous, decorating the awnings and walls of almost every corner store that ever was. They’re so pervasive that it’s easy for the eye to skim over them, and usually mine do, although there’s something stoic about these big cans that captures my attention. Here, stranded above an ex-corner store in Summer Hill that now sells bodybuilding supplements, is one such big can, still advertising the “Mixed Business” that was once below. As I look at it I imagine a giant lumbering up Old Canterbury Road, thirsty, reaching out to wrench the can off the side of the building …
Over in Maroubra is another Big Can, on a long-shuttered Mini Mart. The white cord leading down from it makes me wonder whether the can once lit up at night. While the big cans are familiar to me, I have no memory of seeing them softly glowing atop the awnings when I was a child in the 80s, surely the era of the Big Can.
Other big cans have been repurposed, such as this one on Booth Street in Annandale, now promising pizza, a somewhat less enticing proposition when available in a can. The pizza shop is on the corner has turned into a chicken shop these days, which means it probably, unlike the examples above, sells Coca Cola.
Sydney’s most famous Coke sign is, of course, the one that has been at the top of William Street since 1974, and was recently restored. When it was taken down off the wall in 2015, some obscure painted shapes were revealed. These were discovered to be the remains of a 1973 artwork by Roger Foley, a.k.a. Ellis D Fogg, who had been commissioned to “project images of moving liquids” on the wall.
Some preferred this to the Coke sign, but now the sign is restored to its previous intensity, its neon glow a beacon to those approaching from the west. Some of Coca Cola’s other initiatives – such as the 1996 Coca Cola Quayside museum at Circular Quay, have been less enduring. For the $5 entry you could drink as much Coca Cola as you wanted at the “Fountain of Drinks”, discover the history of the beverage and buy trinkets from a gift shop in the shape of a Coke bottle. There is scant information about this short-lived museum online, although this 1996 review from Architecture Australia provides an arch overview of the experience:
The museum’s content is equally straightforward and presents an almost fetishistic, single-minded focus on the product. Its manufacturing and marketing history fills a sequence of handsome ash-veneered showcases, whilst aurally and visually dominating the centre of the museum is the video wall—showing, to the irritating accompaniment of an animated narrator who ensures that our attention span is limited to 30 seconds, the history of Coke and its advertisements against a backdrop of 20th century events—war, sport and pop music predominate.
Back in the present, I am on the search for more Big Cans as I travel around the suburbs. Last night was the hottest on record, and summer is far from over. I will need some big refreshment to get me through.
Update: some additional Big Cans of Sydney, thank you Kirsten Seale for tipping me off about the Kingsgrove Can:
And Kylie for the Bexley Can:
When I started Mirror Sydney in 2012 it was with a love for the lesser-known place and stories of the city and suburbs. These exist in endless numbers, far too many of them to know or capture comprehensively. From the infinite number of minor Sydney stories, this is one of my favourites.
In 1939 Sydney had a shortage of onions. A period of drought had affected the Victorian crop, and in order to fulfil the demand for the 20, 000 tonnes of onions consumed by the city every year, imports became necessary. Most of the imported onions came by boat from Japan or Egypt.
One of the shipments of onions from Egypt arrived in July 1939. They had been on a longer than expected journey as the ship they were originally transported on, the Aagtekerk, had run aground off the Indian coast. Another ship, the Algenib, took the cargo, including the 8000 bags of onions, and continued on to Australia.
By the time the Algenib arrived in Fremantle, something was wrong with the onions. Many had become “rotten and pulpy” and “gave off an offensive stench”. In Fremantle the dock workers refused to dispose of the more rotten of the onions unless they received higher pay, a request that was grudgingly granted. With the most rotten of the onions disposed of, the shipment continued to Sydney.
By the time the ship reached Sydney the remaining onions were rotting. The Newcastle Sun reported the arrival of the Algenib into Sydney and passengers hurrying away from the ship, which smelt like a “fermenting pickle factory”. What was to be done with the 400 tonnes of condemned onions?
Penguin Ltd. salvage company came to the rescue. In 1939 they had bought five obsolete warships which they were in the process of stripping and preparing to scuttle outside the Sydney Heads. One of these ships, the Stalwart, was ready to be towed out to sea and wrecked, and so it was decided that the ship and the onions would be sunk together.
The bags of onions were stacked onto the Stalwart, piled up in the mess hall, stuffed into the cabins and packed around the funnel. Before dawn on July 22st the Stalwart was towed out from Darling Harbour by two of Penguin Ltd’s tugboats, towards the ship graveyard off the coast of Sydney. 20 miles out from Sydney Heads the seacocks were opened and a the ship detonated, sinking with its odorous cargo to the sea floor below.
This, everyone thought, was the last of the onions.
Two weeks later, on the morning of August 3rd, Maroubra locals were greeted with an unusual sight. Onions were washing up on the beach, thousands of them, and piling up on the shore. The Commonwealth Health Department were in dismay, as a year earlier they’d performed a test to chart how far debris needed to be dumped to prevent it returning to shore. The onions were more persistant than the red sticks the Health Department had used in their test and had, with the assistance of strong north-east winds, returned.
“Onions washed ashore” reported the Sydney Morning Herald, “fears for other beaches”. Coogee and Bondi residents readied themselves for the onion tide. Back in Maroubra people were salvaging the best of the onions for sale: there was still an onion shortage at the time, after all. The Department of Health declared that, if the onions were in good condition, they could be legally traded.
One of the more unusual sights on Maroubra beach today is the large Rubiks cube painted on a concrete block above the stormwater drain outlet. As delightful as it is, perhaps there could have been a more historically appropriate object chosen as a beach decoration.
My Sculpture by the Sea entry for next year, dear readers.