Of steel and salt

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Renegade and tumbledown, Newcastle Ocean Baths are a still life in concrete and rust, skeletal girders and pockmarked slabs slick with the patina of summer: ice-cream wrappers wrinkle and skid bombing gracelessly into the depths, cream is smeared on lips and hips, its oily sheen rainbowing the water, and drifts of sand and chicken salt cling to the softest part of toes.

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An echo of a simpler life, the utilitarian beauty of the baths is scorched, degraded and rusting alive, concrete cancer a virulent viral decimator. Band-Aids swarm the drains, bawling nanas corral their ratbag charges with promises of sweaty pocket-fluffed lollies, and the lifeguards are snoozing in splintered towers.

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Clouded green shadows entice the Tin Lid and his besties in, a concrete bollard chained to the depths their end game. Snorkelled up, riots of high-vis swimmers crowd the ragged edges, soft skin splitting and weeping. Bombing, howling, stalking and raging with delight, they trawl through sun-stretched days, exposed hides pinking in delight.

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Amid a haze of saltwater, Winnie Blues and tea in polystyrene cups, ice-cream-crusted piccanins barrel into crumpled mothers endlessly searching for lost thing, while goggles get smashed…

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The cool depths of this one-time deco darling are a magnet, drawing swimmers, lovers, pirates, hippie-chicks with salt-crusted locks and old men who gamble using long-dead crab carcasses. It is a microcosm of life at the water’s edge and the epitome of cool relief on a blistering day.

Newcastle MirageShane Williams

The baths and pavilion crest the edge of the world on a wave-cut platform, a lifeline between ocean and earth. Opened in 1922, at one time this was a sparkling jewel in Newcastle’s mercantile crown. Today, authorities bluster and frown, conservation vs gentrification an epic battle of wills. The Young Mariner’s Pool was carved out of the stone for the ‘tinies’ in 1937 but was so popular with all ages it had to be extended. Today the Canoe Pool is a glorious knee-deep wonderland, crusted edges, flaky form and brimming with bodies.

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A turquoise geometry defines the business end of the baths, numbered pedestals queuing for attention, bleachers bleaching in shards of light, spectators blooming like algae on wet rocks when the races are on.

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Beyond, however, is the land of big rollers, endless pounding walls of water that drench and scour. Storm drains peel from fragments of land with bite-size jags, spewing water in effervescent efficiency, and ocean crevasses swallow your mind whole, a one-way trip to Narnia bathed in acid-green kelp.

Here council approved ‘protection from the elements’ dissolves pitifully into the raw fabric of the earth, studded as it is with razor-sharp rock, staunch in the face of crashing surf, sluicing tides and the stink of decaying flesh. This is an entirely new reality, and one the children, unsurprisingly, take to with alacrity…

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This is the land of trawlermen and surfers, back-flipping teens on the hunt for fresh-fleshed girls and a mob fishing for flatties off sea-grass rocks. Memories are enshrined, shrines memoried, and shadows cast long.

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Roachy, La Punk, the Waterman and the Cowrie Hole boys send their love.

Frilled out into the endless blue, this scratch of land holds endless adventure, roaring with sound and spray. Its depths are watery homes glanced through glass, its heights cumulus nimbus curls.

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And it is home, for a short while, a reminiscence of childhood, the immediacy of now palpable.

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Time feels inert as if stolen from another generation and laced with the narrative of a simpler story, a no-frills nuance on reality. It offers up a borrowed sense of freedom while sluicing free the anxiety and exhaustion that shackles itself to us all, the aggressive silent partner in this modern-day marriage.

With crabs clutched in salty hands, tangles of hair sucked dry, we straggle home as the light fades, the only recourse hot chips beneath a mantle of cawing gulls and teenage attitude.

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Big tree country

 

We are bound by our senses – sight, sound, smell, taste and touch; memory, hunger, thirst, fright, the sense of time – and while enlightenment might be scoured from a freedom from such perceptions, entangled as it is in the prosaic, in the land of the giant trees, I am willingly enslaved to mine.

Towering, reaching, pulsing with acrid sap, a blood that weeps and boils from gnarled skin, the leviathan blue gums in this prehistoric valley have stood sentinel to time for longer than I can perceive. Five-foot nine-and-a-half (that bit’s important), I am reduced to insignificance at a stroke, my heartbeat slows, my eyes gaze ever upwards, my nose is hijacked by the sharp bite of eucalyptus, muddled with dark soil, crushed bracken spores, the damp of long-awaited rain and the rich stink of spring.

In the beat of silence I hear the thrum of life, unfurling, breathing, synthesising. Spores joyride the air like bikers astride the white line, violent, determined, fighting fit. The unquestioned authority of nature, the vibration of a system locked in form and undeniable, is as far removed from white picket fences and a nicely sculpted decorative shrub as you can get.

It rips into itself, tearing old flesh from new growth and spewing it aside, the vicious denouncement of renewal. A festering carcase broils with flies, its decay too pungent to investigate further – possum, deer, wombat, bush turkey, all potential winners in the final race to the sticky loam below.

We are on Dharug land, at the very end of Weatherboard Ridge Trail, Wollemi National Park, where the scrawl of the track dips its toes into Wheeny Creek, open river land that writhes against the steep sides of a bristling ridge, rocks thrown and tumbled into precarious place a wonderland for the Tin Lid and his blonde compadres.

Lyrebirds do a roaring trade imitating bellbirds, who ignore them and continue to peal into the void, while a bush turkey named Trevor wages war on the provisions, gobbling in glee at his perceived superiority. While Trev clearly has the upper hand over the Kelpie, who, as yet, has failed in her attempts to fly, the homo sapiens have made inroads into the melee, existing on salty cheese and beer in halls made of tin:

Velvet swathes of untethered time are soft on my skin, a kaleidoscope of space and place and random thought, interspersed only by smoky tea steaming from the billy. The throng of happy noise that arises from the kids disperses into the distance, the crackle of the CB the only constant. Memory crowds in, time retracted to a distant source, another place, another country, but the same feeling, the same Lapsang taste.

I am humbled here, ploughed fallow in my humanness. The wild glory of old-growth untamed bushland exists in every dimension, a welcome assault to the senses. Straddling the skies the trees unpeel striped skin in a bark of delight. It lands, wet, at our feet, a sacrifice perhaps, revealing the pale beauty of the clean soft surface beneath. And every element is textured, organic braille to be interpreted and absorbed: moss, lichen, pine needles that pillow beneath our feet, swallowing sound;

Flames of colour lick at our gaze, the riot of life synaesthesia for the soul.

And an ochre cave cradles us in its embrace, the aeons of time etched in its skin:

The towering stands of this natural theatre are so far removed from the modern conceits of human existence as to be almost predatory. Senses twitching, nerves on edge, fight, flight or succumb – this is not a human domain but the realm of nature, swelling, splitting, oozing, leaching, as if…

As if we weren’t here.

We all deal with it in our own ways. The Cowboy spews fire into the night sky, a warrior in tune with the majesty that dwarfs him…

He insists on making chappatis to sustain us and a fire to warm us.

The Tin Lid resolves to embrace his animal instinct, mastering a low-slung holler, limbs akimbo

And me? I suck it all in, this powerful sense of human inertia and insignificance, drawn in magnetic spirals by a swarming, relentless presence. Heart of Darkness undertones slake a thirst for realism and  ‘authenticity’ – the buzz-word for an urban generation – and the concrete, diesel, asphalt and attrition of the city is sluiced free, pooling in the heaving dirt at my feet.

 

 

 

A spinster’s folly

Cloistered, sequestered, filed in time, an ornamental garden is an expression of love, carved into the rich earth only deep care, time and wealth can provide. The verdant yet contained splendour of a planned, pruned, perfected and propagated natural space is designed to pocket emotion as a thief palms a purse, to stall your pace and entice you to lie down beneath the shade of a broad-leaved tree, the velvet scent of year-round blooms syrup on the breeze.

Private gardens were designed to express the power and benevolence of the ruling or upper classes long before public spaces designed for the masses were developed. They were elite. A philanthropic badge for the well-breasted. Still are, in most cases: Tivoli, Versailles, Babylon and Kenroku-en in Japan, all known for their spaciousness and seclusion, artifice and antiquity.

Yaralla is no exception:

Rose arbours, camelia veils, sculpted cycads and canary palms set the bar high, but it is the avenue of mature-leaved brushbox – sentinel shadows akimbo – that steals the show, an entrance that cannot be ignored. Ramrod straight, we are channelled into the heart of another world, a bygone era.

The local dialect for ‘camp’ or ‘home’, Yaralla is a nineteenth-century Italianate mansion set in 37 hectares of land that fringes the Paramatta River at Concord West. It is considered an exceptionally rare and complete example of a large Edwardian private residential estate complete with grotto, spindly towers atop the front door and rural acreage, an anomaly amid the contemporised sprawl of modern cities.

From the crest, the rural idyll unpeels into the amalgam of a red-brick hospital complex, incinerators and frosted glass the destination for the whine of an approaching siren. Across the estate, a distant stripe of water glistens, a mighty river that soothes hot edges. Beyond, though, its farthest edge is cramped with little-box bowers and the whump whump whump of piledrivers, digging deep into old flesh.

The contrast is mesmerising.

Yaralla was built for the only daughter of Thomas Walker – Eadith – who lived here between 1861-1937, cradle to grave. It was her passion, a powerful display of elegance and prosperity. It was a self-sustaining destination where even the horses had plaques, Captain and Baron immortalised in an echoing space, a fox weathervane idling in the calm…

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Run as a feudal estate, Yaralla had its own power plant, fire station, bakery, laundry and dairy, with two river wharves catering for its bustle of traffic. Eadith had 25 servants and employees living on the estate, including a butler, nine maids, cooks, laundresses, chauffeurs, four gardeners, poultry and dairymen, a housekeeper and an engineer. There were four bulls, eleven cows, horses, hens, ducks and geese, as well as rockeries, fountains, ornamental urns, hothouses, a conservatory, rose gardens, a fresh-water swimming pool with bathhouse, a lavender walk and the infamous grotto.

The dairy

The race

 

The grotto

With the Secretary betrothed to her ongoing quest for world domination, and my attorney fighting the good fight in the war against right-wing journalism, I have seconded the Gamekeeper, a woman whose intimate knowledge of loquats pays off immediately.

It was her idea, a country jaunt in the heart of the city abreast our trusty steeds (complete with flat cap). From a long line of wild foragers, the Gamekeeper is an excellent partner in crime, notably because she also brought a picnic and tea in a thermos, which proved both fitting and filling and required leisurely repose.

We investigate salt-fringed mangroves, swamp-oak floodplain forests and rare Turpentine stands. Desert fan palms, cycads, agave and aloe strut their oriental stuff around the grotto, while cedars, Kauri pines, Moreton Bay figs, orchids, Himalayan firs, hibiscus, oleanders, camellias, Indian hawthorn and more vie for attention, a riot of colour, scent and sound, their boughs heavy with the raucous chatter of maggies, parrots and cockatoos, fairy-wrens flitting like light on the leaves.

Stands of bamboo shoulder an ancient wharf and a tangled coastal path is pungent with the stench of salt and mud. It is littered with shell middens, rock oysters the size of dinner plates testament to the riches here.

Aside from gulls ‘maaaaaaate-ing’ from a barge on the water, the tchick tchick tchick of the sprinkler is the only other noise, until a high-vis-clad horticultural crew hove into view. Once a high society hub that catered to royalty and rogues, including aviator Ross Smith, who famously landed in the front paddock and shared cucumber sandwiches with Eadith, today it is the gardeners’ domain.

Well, theirs and NSW Health.

Pale peppermint tones beneath the awnings of the main house belie its historic grandeur and lend it a vague sickliness, a pallor that extends to the quietened windows and sticky-backed plastic foyer. A ‘serious sign’ requests beaky eyes not get too close – it’s an easy request to uphold: much of the glamour has seeped away in a sluice of foamy handwash, and today Yaralla’s heart belongs to patients.

Eadith was a benevolent soul, a philanthropist like her father. Aside from the pet cemetery she dug for her dogs, upon her death, Yaralla was donated to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, to become an outlying convalescence and care unit, its cottages set aside for elderly people in need.  

Eadith was described as fiercely patriotic, loyal to the Empire and ‘a Britisher to the backbone’, despite being born and bred in Australia. Her allegiance is painfully clear in her devotion to the gardens: water is pumped and sprinkled on to the grounds day in, day out. The roses, though not blooming at this time of year, have a team of carers to disperse their needs, OH+S fluorescence a beacon of duty. Post and rail fences are taped up like limbs requiring splints, and the gates have electrical collars as if they might escape.
It is jarring to the eye. That something so beautiful can be so at odds within the broader landscape surprises the Gamekeeper, but the manicured order at Yaralla – flower picking beds, stone carved balustrades and trellises of delicate blooms – sticks out like topiary in the outback. The wild beauty of this land, as it would have been when the estate was built, is subsumed by an order not native to it… herbaceous colonisation if you will. 
And while the ornamentalism on show is captivating – a breathy respite from suburbia and better than anything other than what was – I will always question its place here and its patent need for a team of professionals dedicated to its ongoing convalescence. 

 

 

 

 

 

Laid to rest

There is purpose in his stride and a marmot backpack clinging to his back as the Tin Lid climbs the well-worn steps of the infamous Oasis Hotel. Little is known about this watering hole’s nefarious past, just that it has one, and my intrepid assistant is on the case, nose tuned to the stench of corruption and decay.

Grime-streaked stairs lead to the vacant acres of the first floor. Bathed in light, it would be a property developer’s dream… if it was zoned ‘residential’ and in the heart of the inner west.

As it is, this space is abandoned in time, a relic thick with ghosts. Something happened here, years ago, and age has wearied her. The light-filled expanse creaks and sighs and there is a nebulous trace that flickers in the air, a haunting that nags and bullies, demanding attention like a quarrelling lover…

“It happened. Right here, you know? Youse can still see the marks on the glass…”

 

“I saw it mate, sick!”

 

“He got what he deserved… fucking cop”

So much space, yet it is so filled with memory you have to chew through chunks of it to move around. It tastes like stale smoke and hard-worked grit, like sour slops and cutting loose on a Friday night. It tastes of anticipation and adrenalin, chickie-babes and gleaming muscles, of high-vis diesel stains and the tiny beads of condensation on the outside of a schooner brimming with VB…

In the heart of Bankstown, the Oasis squats inelegantly on South Terrace, a colon of a catchment that leads to North Terrace before coiling back on itself. While downstairs still manages a brisk trade, upstairs it’s howlingly empty.

According to one excited statistic from the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research, Canterbury and Bankstown recorded the most murders for any NSW council area in 2016, ‘one life taken every month last year!

Wally Ahmad – one of Western Sydney’s most infamous crime figures – was gunned down in a brutal underworld execution in Bankstown on April 29th last year. It was a Friday afternoon and he was drinking coffee at Bankstown Central Shopping Centre. On October 25, a drive-by shooting saw Hamad Assaad gunned down in front of his Georges Hall home, perhaps in retaliation for the gangland assassination. Furthermore, “investigators believed Ahmad’s killing could have been retribution for the murder of Safwan Charbaji earlier in April outside Ahmed’s smash repair shop in Condell Park…”

It’s a deranged daisy-chain of retaliation, vengeance laced with fury played out amid the gentle sway of life in an ‘any-other’ suburb just 20kms west of the city. It’s the ripe reckoning of a cash-grab for laundered power, of extortion, narcotics, guns and control. And, in the padded excess of the 80s, the Oasis was allegedly one of the platters from which it oozed.

In 1982, strife was rife.

Downstairs, this was happening:

“Guests at a wake for a murdered criminal dived for cover last night when the suspected murderer appeared at a crowded Bankstown hotel and shot another man dead.

The gunman, described by police as an extremely dangerous hit man, ran from the Oasis Hotel in South Terrace through a car park and disappeared as drinkers were still lying on the floor. Police said John Doyle, 35, of Glenfield, ran out to fight the gunman after four shots were fired through a plate glass window into the bar area.

No one was hurt in the initial shooting, but Mr Doyle was shot in the stomach as he grabbed the gunman. Despite quick treatment from ambulancemen and paramedics, he died soon after reaching nearby Bankstown hospital.

A detective at the scene said about 30 guests had gathered in the bar at the Oasis Hotel to hold a wake for Garry Graham Riley, 32, who was found dead in a car at Padstow 10 days ago. Riley, who had convictions for assault, robbery, stealing and breaking and entering, was on remand for a charge of indecent assault when he was found with six .38 calibre bullets in his head. Homicide detectives believed they knew who was responsible for his murder.”

Meanwhile, upstairs, an even less well-documented drama was unfolding…

And dust still clings to one of the windows, ghostly prints lurching from its powdery reveal.

According to ‘those in the know’, the first floor operated as a nightclub in the early 80s; on one occasion the coppers stormed in, raiding the joint for whatever it was worth to them.  They were promptly ‘removed’ by the bouncers, one through a plate-glass window.

The downstairs drama is recorded in time in one solitary Sydney Morning Herald account, archived to within an inch of its life and buried in the fluttering reams at the heart of the internet.

Upstairs, the story is conceived in whispered motes only, an insinuation, a slight, a snippet of rumour. Was it an internal window? How far did he fall? What did he hit?

All that is known is that the copper didn’t make it. The force shut the place down, with the edict, “this place will never re-open”.

These windows look suspicious, coated in fingerprint powder and clattery to the touch. But if they are coated in dust, they can’t be the ones he fell through, right?

The rooftop makes an airy playground for the Tin Lid, who has, by now, forgotten why he is here.

In the absence of answers, we explore further. The hotel’s gauche glory is a little tarnished now, leached to the bone by the acidity of time. The paint is in revolt, blistering from every surface; the floors slide beneath you yet are sticky to the touch; and the urinals are a still-life of rancid decay. Even the pigeons have scarpered.

Out the back of the bar, where life saddens into pools of disconsolate shadows, the narks and cartels recede a little. Here, the wraiths cling, desperate to hold on to the forlorn slice of life they called their own. Once. Down a dim corridor, the boarding rooms line up. Functional and far from aesthetic, they are a grim portrait of life on the breadline.

At the mention of bread, the Tin Lid reminds me it’s lunchtime, in his own inimitable style:

The Oasis’ delinquent past steams from its cracks, like the puff of air that escapes a kerb sofa when you sit on it, musty and rank. The vestiges of a bygone era are everywhere, memories stuck in the gullet of now. But these, floated down from the walls, the tape that once held them flaky dandruff, these are more heartfelt than heinous…

Just old and faded. Although that motor has got form…

We leave in a flurry, lightsabers at the ready, intent on scoring sumac-sprinkled meat served with fresh labneh, mint and pomegranate, lunch with a middle-eastern provenance Bankstown’s other legacy.

I can’t help but wonder, though. Will the Oasis ever relive its glory days, proudly anarchic and staunchly naughty? Somehow, I doubt it.

 

 

 

 

 

At the edge of the world

“Renaissance cartographers portrayed the edge of the known world as an evil, enchanted place, where storms raged and bizarre creatures lurked. Sailors foolhardy enough to venture there were believed to face certain death. Yet resolute explorers pushed the world’s edge ever farther back, until the map finally wrapped around the globe.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

This triggered apprehension is the epitome of the Australian Gothic movement – the landscape is seen as malevolent so that terror shrouds the perception of a barren land that resolutely fails to fit a romanticised colonial ideal, that of the bucolic, verdant bounty of England’s green and pleasant lands. It was driven by fear of the unknown, a storm of ‘what-ifs?’ wresting anticipation into the realm of rank foreboding.

Far from the tame, considered beauty of the motherland – coppices cradled in cropped uniformity, ‘shaded lanes‘ and ‘soft dim skies‘ – the end of the world is a helix in time, a sinkhole to the past where the light dances and skulks with staccato resonance, a brooding reiteration of the dawning of time.

“Throughout its history Tassie, as the Australians call it, has attracted a rugged breed of people who have come and stayed. The first wave of Western inhabitants, the convicts transported from Great Britain, came involuntarily; but in modern times the island has held a special appeal for visionaries, explorers drawn to the far end of the earth.”

Jamie James, www.theatlantic.com

In a world in which everything has an online representation, Mount Terra, just to the north-west of Hobart, has but an echo of a story. Its contours exist in a vortex, no name, no place, no mark. It is a whisper cast in low-level light, bound by the circles of age that can be traced on ragged skin.

A sculpted muscle on the flank of Mt Dromedary, Mt Terra rises 608m above sea level. Mists swaddle ancient boughs heavy with doused lichen. Speckled rocks and faded green moss never rouse, but an iced bite refreshes the tips of your ears.

The air is bracing – a ‘clean’ you can taste – raw oxygen pumping into your veins like a drug, a soaring invocation of life on the edge.

Australia itself is remote, tucked away from almost everywhere else, but Tasmania – a small island state that dangles like a glittering pendant from the mainland’s neck notch – is about as far from anywhere as it’s possible to go.

And then there’s Mount Terra. So close to Hobart and yet so far removed, with its escapist views and redneck tinge it is wholly of its own. Trees and reptiles shed their outer casings to litter the dirt; skins and furs line the walls of the homes, crouched around wood stoves; and time casts off its mantle, stripping itself bare beneath our curious gaze.

There is a faintly gothic taint: the land is wreathed in smoke and fog, wraith-like vapours caught in curled valleys, pink, heather and velvet-grey tones bruise a faded eucalypt haze, and weathered hulks loom from the shade. But it is playful too, a natural wonderland, rich in soul, and the Tin Lid is quick to find his realm: a shattered trunk becomes a trader’s den, founded on the principles of Bartertown, rocks exchanged for love and long sticks.

Bleached rises soar ever up, strewn with the carcasses of long-hollow timber and burnt out burrows, while the scale, from the minute to the majestic, is awing.


And within this untamed intensity, couched within the wild sparse beauty of the edge, there is a tenderness. Stoves and flames stoke a closeted warmth, and life is carved out carefully:

   

Windows open to the expanse, edges are curled in tight. Rocks and bush poles form sturdy homes that bubble with hard-won laughter and warm toes; the scent of heady wine hangs in the air and produce comes carved from the earth.

In a shiver of sunlight at the zenith of day, we toast to a new life, a world away from the roaring choked grit of the city, and devoid of convenience or clique.

Faded by trial and time, Mount Terra is where shadows race to meet each other and an ancient place exposes its bones. It exists at the edge of the world and yet it feels so familiar, home away from home.

They say that here, time is forgotten. That can’t be, not in our modern world. Perhaps, instead, it has escaped, billowing free in an endless sky.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Romantic heroine

Toting dancing shoes and a sultry smile, the Bestie is in the mood for sport, which in itself is unusual as she has a less that polite attitude to all things sporting – unless you include wagers or card-sharking.

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The Tin Lid, however, knows exactly what’s going on. In his bright little mind, dancing is sport, as is snorkelling, lemonade drinking and Lego. And he is ready to roll:

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Overlooking Varna Park in the rarefied suburban sweetness that is the east, Bronte Women’s Bowling Club* is proudly defiant – she wears her hair well styled, pinned and primped to perfection with not a strand out of place, and her stance is impeccable, that of a romantic heroine glancing over her shoulder with a knowing smile.

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She is well attired too: a cloak of faded glory, lawns that fan out like a fluted skirt, and undergarments that are both appealing and restrained, like patterned bloomers…

Exhibit A: The Queen

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Exhibit B: Bain-maries in military formation beneath a natty bunting string

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But as every open space – no matter how slim – from the coast to the inner west is now prime real estate eyed by slick-set developers with lupine snarls, clubs have been forced to become increasingly creative in their multi-purposing. And this old lady is no exception.

Childcare centres, markets, gyms, alfresco dining spots, community gardens, yoga on the green, outdoor movies, corporate events, Christmas parties, weddings, barefoot bowls and – heaven forbid – bocce**, these old ladies are dancing a fine line between commercial reliability and wrack and ruin, with many forced to sell off their skirts to pay their way.

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At Bronte, a large-scale development glares over one fence, and a childcare centre and car park creep closer at the edge, a phalanx of shiny vehicles static in the face of the grassy endeavour in front of them. Yet she remains resolutely old-fashioned, this grand old dame, brandishing glamour and grit in equal measures.

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And while Cobar Memorial Services and Bowling Club has to suffer the indignities of a remote control car track carving up the now-bald third green, at least here the hydrangeas are stout and the view is winsome.

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To keep afloat, clubs have been forced to be more open and innovative too, allowing social and (gasp) temporary membership. At Bronte the whites are off, kids and dogs are welcome, the bar is manhandled by a large man dressed wholly in nylon, who, while less than effusive, sells cold beer cheap, and the bistro is expertly pan-handled by a Greek couple who kiss as much flesh as they batter…

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Perhaps the bubbler has seen a little less use of late, but the tablecloths have a military precision, the chairs are safely corralled (you can’t trust early 80s chairs, they are thoroughly deviant), the dance floor is shining in anticipation and the carpet is busy making a profound statement on late-20th century fashion clashing.

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As for the Ladies, it is a nebulous light aqua dreamland that might possibly have swallowed my mind whole…

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The Cowboy reports in with sherbert-scented amenities and flanks of shiny trophy shields mounted on pine, and the Tin Lid has found not just a fish tank but a flower for the Bestie’s hat and an uncanny ability to throw coasters.

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But the main attraction here is the promise of sprung boards skiddy with talc, the hammering of twanging ivories and the bellow of a double bass, courtesy of a rollicking swing band and West Coast swing dancers who spring and catch each other in a flurry of laughing movement.

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Unsurprisingly, the six-year-old is impressive, which further adds fuel to our fear he may be set for a career in musical theatre. Not such a bad thing perhaps, but the practice years may leave their mark as anyone who has heard Dammit Janet! sung at full volume every hour on the hour will know.

His performance, which includes cronking, crumping, wrist-flicking and stomping, fortunately, avoids twerking or interpretive moves, but he is readily awarded a shout out from the vocalist and free ice-cream from the cheek-grabbing Greek mama in the kitchen.

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From tattoo-flecked bodgies to toe-tapping nanas, this joint is jumping. I find a middle-aged woman backing out of the Ladies with tiny sheer squares of silk beneath the soles of her shoes. It’s to protect them apparently, and save them for the dance floor. This is a serious business, with big-panted sensibly shod dancers twirling in metronomic rhythm, beaming grins breaking across their faces like wild surf.

The Bestie describes the Bronte Bowlo as “like a dated photo that forgot how to fade”, and while this makes me ponder exactly why I am the one writing this and not her, she is spot on. Caught in the eddies of time, this institution, once strictly staunch and glowing white, has learned to adapt.

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It welcomes everyone and offers the world – smiling faces, cresting sound and an open space in this sickeningly crowded city. It offers respite and respect, alongside a staff that proffer litres of tartare sauce and assistance with your cardi, should you need it.

It is a haven of sight and sound and well-battered flesh, laced in the gentle premise of community spirit, a space to meet, eat, play and dance.

It offers sport for all.

I can remember when they were daggy places inhabited solely by pensioners and alcoholics there for the cheap drinks. Now lawn bowls clubs are the place to be. Take off your shoes and get into some barefoot bowls. It’s the perfect sport for dudes; you can smoke and drink while engaging in “sport.”

Dave O’Neill, SMH

*Bronte Bowling Club is not gender specific: both men and women make up the members. The signage was just too good to resist.

**Lawn bowls is generally accepted as Anglo-Celtic, bocce is Italian, boules is French, and there is fierce rivalry between them. Although in times of crisis, anything goes.

 

Still life in the suburbs

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The internet is suspiciously quiet when I inquire, politely, about Templestowe Lower, an unassuming suburb in Melbourne’s outer west. It is variously described as “a nice suburban neighbourhood fit for families and nature lovers” with “green tree-lined streets that are perpetually quiet, save for the sound of lawn mowers on weekend afternoons”.

Having spent a chilly afternoon adventure braced against an antarctic wind harvesting street treasure with a mob of tin lids, I can attest to the somnambulant nature of this place, a thick-set hiatus of time and space, existing in its own pleasantly scented inertia.

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It is mapped by empty streets with views that stretch to a noiseless infinity. Its antithesis is a sound haze at the edge of its limits, but here, the studied conformity is silent, a hushed version of the great Australian Dream, complete with coats for caravans.

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According to an anonymous post, the “demographic of Templestowe Lower seems to be older couples with kids in their teens or twenties so there is a bit of ‘hoonage’…”, but the day we delve, the hoons are our own, a roiling barrage of noise and laughter with treasure on their minds.
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In streets with a verdant sensibility – Oak, Sassafrass, Jarrah, Blue Gum, Scarlett Ash Drive – we forage for front-yard flowers and sift for plastic turf trash in high-end council cleanups.

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And we drag our swag through safely suburban streets that form a tame trophy-home haven.

Until the 70s this area was almost entirely populated by farmers, its wide berth atop sprawling hills with spindly legs curling into the warm valleys between them the perfect climate for fruit trees. But the commercial orchards are now long gone, replaced with staid retirees and families keen to grow their young “in a wholesome environment”. Like peaches…

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A carolling magpie and the scratch-tick of time dragging its heels serenade our broad-street sprawl. A pair of beady eyes watches our noisy tribe, and empty space hosts broad panoramas of life far away.

School fields are speckled in buttercups, projecting a well-mannered sense of mayhem, while “outdoor recreational spaces” are an experiment in targeted tastefulness. Amid virulent fecundity – blooms, buds, sprays, sprigs and twigs, arboreal umbrellas with heavy-limbed weight and contoured conifers standing sentry – the kids skip, the mothers scan and the watchful bird continues his baleful guard.

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Crested letterboxes stand aloof outside cul-de-sac castles and drains are numbered individually in this dormitory of the city. It is the epitome of cultured civility, pedestrian, pedantic and very proud, a wide open space just waiting to host the brawling ruckus of life.
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Instead, it resonates with its own emptiness. For all its vegetative abundance the only other life we see is shuttered behind double-paned doors, wide eyes watching our lollopping progress (or strutting on sharp claws across the asphalt). And while rich velvety Arabian sounds sneak from lace-curtained facades and the air is thick with spice, there is no evidence of the Australian urban cultural diaspora in Templestowe Lower.
In fact, it remains resolutely floral.
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If you’re looking for trendy restaurants and nightlife, you’ll have to drive to another suburb to find it. Luckily Templestowe Lower is only a 20-25 minute drive from the CBD, but without a car you’ll likely have to catch 2-3 buses to get most anywhere of interest outside of rush hour.

One of just 82 Google search hits for Templestowe Lower.