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.

 

 

The Great Sixth Birthday

Birthdays are pernicious little things – the older we get, the less appealing they become and yet still they stalk, tip-toeing up behind us with an ageist agenda. But I remember birthdays that, despite their wintery provenance, were suffused in a halcyon glow and the softly-lit memories of childhood, celebrations rife with love and laughter, and old orange boxes spilling recycled paper and spent sparklers.

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To celebrate not losing me in the supermarket each year, my parents would cast aside the prosaic traditions of old – cake, cards, sugar-spun chaos and a rousing battle of pass the parcel – and instead dress up in wild-haired wigs and 7″ flares, serve ham and salad to a tribe of seven-year-olds (with no scent of jelly or trifle or ice cream), and lead stirring renditions of the theme to The Muppet Show

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It was chaotically beautiful, right up until that day Mum lost a kid in a snow-topped drainage channel…

But while these memories fuel a wistful nostalgia, they cast a razor-sharp perspective on the modern cult of kids’ birthday celebrations. In the searing light of the immediate, the cutting edge of ‘now’, kids’ parties routinely feature absurd extravagance – from baroque-inspired edible gold-leaf table decorations to glitter-spewing unicorn balloons, from disco-dancing for three-year-olds – squealing in sequins – at the Ivy, to a gift registry that specifies which brand of e-reader little Grayson would prefer.

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Nursing my horror (as if it were dying of shame) at having to accompany the Tin Lid to these prodigal parades, doused in the sodden hysteria of little darlings denied the sacrificial last whack of the pinata, and ambushing weekends like weakened prey, I am in denial of the ‘new normal’.

The party’s off.

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So, armed with a four-fingered beaver and the Tin Lid’s bestie – a free-spirited hybrid beauty, part clown part gypsy, with luminous eyes and a child’s innocence (which on closer inspection is adeptly skewered by a shrewd sense of ratbaggery) – we hit the road for the Great Sixth Birthday, a road trip into the abyss, beyond the rabid squall of an ever evolving birthday culture.

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It should be mentioned that the Bestie is averse to kids’ parties too. Here she is moonlighting as a multi-hair-hued princess, in her other incarnation as Kids’ Party Entertainer:

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It didn’t take much to convince the birthday boy. In fact, the words: “Gem’s coming” and “Dad bought snakes” sufficed, even with the dawning realisation that the vertiginous pile of plastic commonly associated with little-known school friends and the last-minute K-Mart dash would be missing.

OK Mum, but can we take the Beaver? And have a midnight feast with Vegemite on toast and hot chocolate?

Sure we can darl’, because this is a journey for you, that we get to celebrate too, minus the clean-up and the chocolate-crackle comedown.

First up, the greatest show on earth, complete with giant popcorn and sadistic clowns. The Bestie had to hold my hand – as a child of the ’70s, I am cautiously terrified of clowns (you can’t show too much fear, obviously. They jack up on that stuff…)

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Then, with not a dead fairy pinned to white sliced in sight, we head south on rain-slicked urban streets, until the sky peels open its soul to reveal sparkling stars in an ocean of black. How easy it is to forget the true night sky, and fall for the acid-washed version put on for humanity’s seething mass, for whom bleeding light steals the firmament.

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To celebrate we stop at a neon-gilded servo and eat hot chips.

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Before the back seat falls quiet:

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In time-honoured tradition, we have found a “little house”, a generic home for much of the Tin Lid’s breathy excitement – cupboards and carpets and broiling hot air, bunk beds and pillow fights and dens made of sheets. I revel in unmade beds and crumbs on the floor, teetering towers of forsaken shop-bought packaging and countless tea-towels.

The Cowboy likes the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and the Bestie has spotted the spa…

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His birthday bleeds into a new day, the lights of the little house dim (It turns out running the spa, toaster, microwave and air conditioning at once puts strain on what can only be described as a paltry system), and I am content to leave the thick dusting of hot chocolate to get better acquainted with a synthetic carpet.

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At some point, the Tin Lid had requested a science party. In the knowledge that science parties often cause roof damage, the decision was made to take the party to a space so inherently scientific it vibrates with barely controlled kineticism.

He discovered that the air organ can be played with one’s head…

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Spent an hour mastering coffee-cup flight,

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Investigated heat hands and jazz hands,

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And won sartorial awards in a boilersuit. He also hurled his small frame down a 20ft drop, freefalling like a boss.

Ultimately, though, the highlight of the Great Sixth Birthday is the little house and the treasures it holds. Set in the desolate heart of a Soviet-inspired wasteland, it is made of plastic and cunningly disguised as one of its siblings/ spawn (the true nature of this relationship remains shrouded).

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There is much on offer, from the well-stocked reception shop – “of course you can have a Paddle Pop darl’, just try not to get the drips on your scarf and gloves…” – to the fire hydrant, from the multifunction space to the dining hall, all feathered with signs, as subtle as an ibis wearing a trout.

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This motel home has a utilitarian beauty, sharp lines over clear dictates – footwear must be worn in the dining hall – frosty grass speckled with oak leaves, a phone box to clatter open and shut, and a natty section of barbed wire between the site and the C3 Church next door, presumably to prevent the Christians getting in.
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The Tin Lid shows his deep appreciation for the post-mid-century faux asbestos architecture by taking pictures of his feet and other lenses:

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But in its decent simplicity – cold breathe that crackles with life; a small hand curled into mine; an overly ambitious round of pin the tail on the possum – it wholly beats X-Box dancing games and over-excited children’s performers high on red cordial and strobe lighting. Although we fail to resist the temptation of Twister…

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The excruciating idiosyncrasies of children’s birthday parties – “do I invite the whole class? Should I get The Magnificent Man of Stripes or just wing it? Why do we not have a working stereo for pass the parcel? How many splintered pieces of dollar-shit gifts do I have to include in the damn parcel? Fuck! The fucking fairy bread! Can I start drinking now?” – remain at bay.

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In fact, by the time we hit the cake display in the retro splendour of the Paragon Cafe, heartbeat of a sleepy town’s main drag, talk has turned to next year’s not-birthday, and how many pieces of banoffi pie a six-year-old can have (as opposed to a five-year-old)…

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Six apparently, despite a single piece of said pie being the size of his newly grown head.

As we thread our way home along chugged arteries amid his long-thrown snores, the Cowboy and I make a pact – a deal to ensure there is always an option for the ‘new normal’. Because it is here, in the shadows of convention – clattered full of little houses, midnight feasts, spontaneous frivolity and greasy-spoon roadside diners – that we belong.

It’s time to drop the wishing wells and catered hors d’oeuvres, time to axe the multiple entertainers and the lavish party bags. I’m begging here. Please move on from the marquees and pony rides with white-coated waiters and retreat back into the world of pass-the-parcel and chocolate crackles.

Shauna Anderson, Mamamia.com.au

 

 

The pilgrimage

The past and the present are strange bedfellows, tangling sheets around tired ankles and emitting weathered scent in each other’s direction in contemptuous disregard.

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Deep in the belly of this failing relationship an acid reflux bubbles constantly, agitated boiling set to erupt. Channelling an early morning heavy-breathing fetish the past sneaks up on the slumbering form of the present and blasts rancid fetor into its peaceful face. Naturally, this causes the present to jolt awake, rip the rumpled covers off and call for the future, who arrives dressed to the nines in blueprints and potential-spotted planning papers…

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There’s a handsome road in Sydney, with a few scars and scrapes, that’s home to a division of classes. At one end the road is darker, eclectic, while a journey towards its northern end gradually becomes lighter, greener, more upscale. In between – strolling, sipping and snacking – are a multifarious bunch of Sydneysiders, from the welfare recipient to the affluent professional. This is Glebe Point Road.

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Glebe Point Road, long a haunt of the weary and weird, wears memory like a shawl. Dive bars and razor gangs bleed into artist haunts and fleapit flicks, while poky rooms and crumbling villas morph into “desirable new living options”.

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Years ago, I dipped my toes into harbour waters at Glebe’s reach, sitting on the boards at Blackwattle Studios as music pounded behind me and a small, wiry man howled his love to the moon.

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Overlooking Rozelle and Blackwattle bays, the warehouses and boat shed that made up the studios dated from the 20s and started life as timber drying stores and boatbuilding yards. The Long Building housed over a hundred people – artists, artisans, boatbuilders, furniture makers, ceramicists, film makers, weavers… you get the picture – and were some of the last working buildings on the waterfront. They were described as “important breeding grounds for creative talent and incubators for small business… in an enlightened city [they] would be considered community assets” (fineframing.com.au).

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Naturally, they were eviscerated in favour of luxury apartments, leaving a void where once there were the people and places of a once working harbour. And today, with my venerable mother in tow, I can find no trace of their diaphanous tenure, my memory of them evidence alone.

She is unperturbed, as only she can be, unflappable in any crisis and constructed of a very British forbearance. Beyond her nostalgia for stiff upper lips and a lengthy queue – “it means whatever you are queuing for will be better than if you weren’t, darling” – my mother is a well-dressed and benevolent matriarch, who agrees to come on this trip down memory lane on the understanding there is lunch included.

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Once past the Burley Griffin incinerator (now a venue featuring a kitchen – with sink, microwave, fridge, Zip Hydroboil tap – and a small terrace overlooking parkland), we hunt for lunch at Bellevue, itself a relic of an earlier time, but sensitively recommissioned, possibly with Zip Hydroboil taps. Splinters of the past poke through and the larb is tasty.

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Much of the Glebe foreshore was reclaimed land, not considered suitable for residential development; because of the harbour access, it was an industrial haven, a bustling waterfront teeming with life. Today nothing is left of the Vanderfield and Reid timber yards, or the tanneries and abattoirs – all capitulating to the capitalist roar for more. Now the water’s edge bristles with new apartment blocks that gaze benignly over deceptively calm waters. Yet beneath the silvery film of the surface lies discontent – you can feel it.

At least there is Blackwattle Bay Park, the result of nearly four decades of campaigns for public access to the foreshore by local residents. But while it is decorous to promenade (whilst avoiding lycra-clad bike-wielding maniacs and sleep-deprived Bugaboo operators), the paths fall beneath the myopic gaze of surveillance, which taints the experience a little.

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A remnant of Sylvester Stride’s former ship-breaking yards is preserved, in all its spiked and menacing glory, the clang of steel on dismembered hulks a rich seam layered beneath bird calls and a cantering Kelpie.

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And a metal drum winch is a relic of Harbour Lighterage, the workers that repaired the floating platforms called lighters that brought timber into the bays. It is beautiful, rusted flora in this palimpsest of a park.

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We turn from the shore, deep in conversation. This pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of Glebe is a window into my past, a glimpse into a world previously only described in lengthy missives scratched excitedly on paper-thin blue air-mail. For my mum, it is the sight, smell and sound of my history. With lunch included.

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Glebe puts on a show, tangles of life crowded in tight, skinny malinky streets that lead to tiny cul-de-sacs of calm.

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And slices of Asian wonder cast into the mix, from teetering Bangkok style board-ups to the exquisite seclusion we find at a back-street temple.

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Sze Yup Temple has grown roots deep into the soil next to Jubilee Oval. Tucked in tight in a dimly lit corner of the city, this crimson and gold Buddhist realm has been here since 1898, a living memory of Chinese settler history.

Incense spirals lazily on the breeze, cleansing the air of noise and need and instilling an innate veil of calm introspection,

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I take deep pleasure telling my mum of my appreciation for Buddhism, years spent in Hong Kong, China and with the crinkly-faced Tibetan community of Dharamsala, absorbing the culture and ritual of this sacred belief… as well as Yat Lok roast goose and an abiding love of firecrackers.

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The red-brick temple with its fluted gables is dedicated to folk hero Kwan Ti – revered by Daoists, Confucians and Buddhists alike – and is flanked by the Chapel of Departed Friends and the Chapel of Good Fortune. I can’t help but wonder if the departed friends ought to have visited the Chapel of Good Fortune to ward off their departure, but I am silenced by a matriarchal glare.

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Inside, there is an intriguing sensory imbalance. To the right of the main temple, which is shrouded in passive offering, tumbles of oranges and lemons and stinking garlands of lilies wreathed in smoke, the Chapel of Good Fortune is whirring.

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It blinks and twitches with movement and light, a thousand tiny suns to brighten your fortune. Tiny metronomic clicks guide me to the front, eyes skyward, until I stand before a mirrored shrine. As my eyes descend, they glimpse the broad grin plastered on my face.

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To the left, in the Chapel of Departed Friends, a catalogue of dearly departed on the rosewood walls is reflective and stilling. I can’t read the Hanzi, but I understand the emotion captured in a picture, partners caught in time forever…

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The Kelpie is also inept at Chinese script, however, she is quick to find the sooty swag of Snickers in a corner. I hurry her out of this rare sanctuary, portal to another part of my life.

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Bound by this dedication to the dead, the heartfelt worship, the smoky pall and those who seek guidance, incense clasped between praying hands, Mum and I are quiet as we stroll to the gates. We both, however, notice the sign:

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The temple has an orbit of exuberance, yet it is still and peaceful. Flashes of fire and crashing symbols are tempered by strolling Ibis and soulful prayer, and possibly the spirits of many discarded cats.

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Climbing the steep streets above the ANZAC Bridge’s strings, Glebe is an old place, weathered with remembrance, reminiscence and ‘how it used to be’s’.

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And while the future busily maps out coloured spheres of ‘desirable new living options’, transit solutions, high-density shopping and a new socio-economic order, and the present balefully ignores the old guard, its eyes riveted on what’s next, the past slinks contentedly to the corners and beds down peacefully for the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet-water people

“Cross the bridge, head along the bush track to the pipeline… you can’t miss it. Turn right, then keep your eyes peeled for a downhill bush track that leads to the water…”

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An intrepid band of souls, we venture away from the straggle of suburbia in downtown Heathcote, plummeting along a vertiginous track in search of water, desert explorers pinned to the mirage. Blackboys and bugs tickle, clack and sigh, moving with metronomic incessancy through a sluggish heat.

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Rocky outcrops teeter above a teeming expanse drenched in the peppermint spice of eucalyptus, the air blue with lazy oil and heady intent, the dog days of summer prickling skin and shivering spines.

The ledge of the Woronora Plateau juts imperiously over everything it overlooks, a benevolent overlord snazzy in sage-green millinery. The bitumen fast forgotten, ‘merge now’ lines are formed by bent branches and sandstone, and traffic dissipates, a lone hiker stomping into the distance; a mother with a stroller watching us drift away.

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The documentation of this area persistently refers to waterholes and rivers and creeks and billabongs – the lifeblood of the basin – but we need no paperback confirmation. The presence of the Woronora Dam Pipeline helps solidify the feeling, a steel watercourse bound by humanity. The pipeline is 27.1 km long and consists of 42 inch (1.07m) mild steel spirally welded pipes, which is of significance to The Cowboy alone…

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The Tin Lid and I are more taken with the bolts and graff:

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While our illustrious Germanic wild-swimming raconteur is chiefly interested in the etymology of this useful message:

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There is water here – we can feel it, rich in our veins, its scent like a drug that drags our conscience to the cool belly of the depths. The branches bow to it, the track snakes forward, one step in front of the other until we can see, feel, hear and taste it, a clear space that ripples and rents beneath the canopy.

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The Tin Lid rip his clothes off and bombs into the cool waters, closely followed by the rest of the mob, a splash of skin that sizzles on contact…

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A turtle bobs up to look at the long-limbed tanine-crested humans as they loll and sprawl in the cool. He dips back down beneath a lily-pad fringe; a squiggle of snake disappears fast, a ripple in time.

The Cowboy channels Huck Finn, a watery vagabond with a keen eye and braces for his pants.

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This is Goburra Pool, deep in the heart of Heathcote National Park, named, it is believed, for the kookaburras hearty laugh. In divining this lucid haven, the illustrious German – a man of exquisite idiosyncrasies and precise perfection – has channelled his ongoing quest to swim wild.

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Wild swimming answers a primal call; it seeks an elusive Eden and is driven by the urge to submerge beneath the ephemeral border that carves a line between land and water. Defined as encompassing the spiritual quality of swimming free in nature, wild swimming is often remote, adventurous and potentially frilled with danger, which is always a plus.

“You pass the lake’s edge, the sea’s shore, the river’s brink – and you break the surface of the water itself. In doing so, you move from one realm into another: a realm of freedom, adventure, magic, and occasionally of danger.”

Robert MacFarlane, Outdoor Swimming Society

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It emerged in the UK about a decade ago with the formation of the Outdoor Swimming Society, whose devotees seek to swim in nature and “connect with the wilderness, induce joy, help us to lose track of time and dream in sync with water’s breaths, currents and tides…” And while this is to be heralded, there is little chance a cold, eel-infested pond in the dank heart of Rochdale will ever get the Cowboy to float its boat.

In Australia, however…

A throttle of trail bikes revs in the distance, the mechanic chak-chak-chak resonating off sandstone cliffs to be swallowed by meaty summer air, a human rhythm that crescendos briefly above the bugs. The water is like cool tea, softly slinking over hot skin, a chilled embrace that inspires whooping joy and the bravery of fools.

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A mob of teens crash through the air to tumble shrieking into the depths. Armed with a quart of sunscreen, tepid tap water in old Coke bottles and the insistent bleep of Mum calling, echoing unheard from the cracker-crumb strewn crannies of an old sports bag, they are kings for a day, astride ancient rocks and high above the pool. They stamp, holler and splash with the pride of loose youth, not yet slumped on sofas with overly pixelated pulses and reeking of disdain.

Lazy jazz spools from a shoebox speaker, a sea eagle soars high above us, and the water lilies clasp close as the sun is shuttered by clouds.

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In the dying rays, I teach the Tin Lid the finer etiquette of Hula Hoop ingestion, and absorb rich, vivid memories of ‘how life was’.

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This is Dharawal [or Tharawal] country, the land of the original peoples of the southern and south western Sydney area from the south side of Botany Bay, around Port Hacking to the north of the Shoalhaven River (Nowra), extending inland to Campbelltown and Camden.

This sweet water has sustained the mob since the beginning, its sacred peace, brimming with life and laughter and barely hidden sustenance, a drawcard for the ages.

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Clans will always gather here, to swim, eat, laugh and love, to dip beneath this reality into the watery depths of time.

And this magical place’s dreamtime story will spool on into the future, memories unfurling with it like streamers of the past caught in the eddies of time.

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