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.
Heading north along Burwood Road I walk by house after house. Some are low, brick Federation-style houses, the kind that have wooden gables and front porches, although I see no one sitting outside on this weekday late afternoon. There’s still an hour or more of the work-day to go, but daylight has already started to fade from the sky, and the air has turned chill.
So I keep moving, past the roadside trees that have been cut into weird shapes to avoid the electricity wires, until I reach a curve in the road. Following it around I see up ahead that the factory I was looking for has all of a sudden become visible. Its tall metal chimney rises up from the central building, a high, wide block with long walls made of opaque glass, bracketed by two brick walls on each side like bookends. The view of the factory shifts the scale from domestic to industrial, although like the houses the factory is surrounded by gardens, which softens somewhat, the hard appearance of the industrial buildings.
Around the factory are landscaped grounds with tall, spreading conifers, and garden beds planted with clusters of agapanthus. I look in through the fence and read the text on a sign beside the driveway that runs down along the office building closest to the street: Green Bean Deliveries: Please report to Bean Storeman immediately upon arrival. On the side of the central factory building is another clue to the goods produced inside: a huge letter B, white against the bricks, two-storeys high. Within the top loop of the B is a tea leaf, and within the lower one, a coffee bean.
The Bushells factory began to operate here in the late 1950s, after moving their roasting and blending operations from Harrington Street in The Rocks, to this larger site further west in Concord. Bushells was the first Australian tea company, and was strongly established by the early 20th century. They were prolific advertisers, with ads being painted on the exterior walls of corner stores across the country, leading to there now being many Bushells ghost signs out there for the finding. In Canterbury Road in Belmore is one such sign, with a traffic-related message: “STOP for Bushells, Go refreshed”. Underneath this, behind the slim trunks of casuarina trees, is a carefully-painted box of the signature Blue Label blend.
The factory is on Wangal country, on the south side of the harbour, as the river moves west towards Parramatta. The peninsula had, before colonial intervention, been woodland on the higher ground with mangroves by the water’s edge. The colonial claims on the land saw that this area, as with much of the swampland that had made up the harbour foreshores, was filled in for the purposes of industry. Beginning in the 1920s, it had taken 12 years of depositing rubble here to “fill the hungry swamp”.
Now instead of the hungry swamp is a golf course and a park, and estates of apartments and townhouses that have replaced the timber mill and the metalworks that had also once operated near by the water. But of all the structures here, the Bushells factory dominates the headland, a symbol of colonialism both in the immediate sense of the changes to this land, and in the wider history of tea as a commodity.
Turning in through the entrance to the golf course I follow the path that runs along its edge, by the tall wire fence of the factory site. An earthy smell of coffee drifts over, although the factory’s operations are much reduced, ahead of its imminent closure. A residential development is planned for it in the near future, taking advantage of its waterside position, part of the general move towards deindustrialisation of this area.
As the sun moves towards the horizon the sky turns golden, and its glow is reflected in the wide glass wall of the central factory building. From where I’m standing at the edge of the golf course, the building has the look of a giant radio set, its chimney like an aerial. Or a giant juice carton, with the chimney the straw. I look through the tall wire fence at it, making up analogies, as steam billows up from the side of the main hall, white puffs that drift upwards and dissipate.
Then I turn towards the harbour. The water in the bay is flat and glassy, shining with afternoon light, as if it is a bowl which swirls the colours of the sunset inside it. Sky and water seem a perfect mirror of each other, and for a moment, all other details recede.
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.