Roger of Redfern

My attorney suggests I acquire boots. “Useful things. Cover the toes,” she says. The dog days of summer saw much flaunting of chipped scarlet toe-nail polish and flip flop tan lines, but today winter is lurking in the wings of this threadbare theatre, crowbar at the ready. She has a point.

It is a typical Sydney day, all flouncing clouds and majestic gestures. A worker’s skirt howls up around her ears as if intent on escape; a toddler bawls as his saliva-stained dog-eared bunny hits the deck and the traffic contorts and writhes indecently, a honking stack of metal and frustration. Clouds flash past sickeningly, a heady mix of burnt coffee and frustration is smeared through the air, and a rusted Streets ice-cream sign frets in its tired housing.



Roger remains calm, an air of effusive gentility shrugged gently across his shoulders.


Behind his head a reassuring sign reiterates that I am in the right place, bowed by the weight of eight pairs of tatty boots, old friends in need of a little love.


Roger has been here for 48 years. Right here in the heart of Redfern, without a care in the world. Obstreperous weather, traffic insurgency and the transgressions of tots bring on another beaming smile – he’s seen it all before, welcomes it even. Roger is in thrall to the vibrant life that this particular swarm of chaos signifies.

Survivor of a simpler life, Roger champions the Redfern of today too;

“I love the place, you know? It’s like a little country town in the middle of the city. Me? I’m a people person. Here, on the streets, I see the people, I talk, I make ’em smile… I never bin robbed of anything. If people die in another suburb no-one mentions it. If they die in Redfern, everyone talks. It’s a community, you know?”


38 years ago Roger’s shop was considered ‘high risk’, a risible description that sets him cackling with glee. The security firm forced Roger to install bars on the shopfront all those years ago. They would be unimpressed by his MO today, wandering out to go for a pee and leaving the shop open, unattended. But like he says, “who gonna want this stuff anyway? I got no money, I just got the leather and laces, you know?”


Redfern is far from the warm scent of cedar and hash, sun-hot bricks and spilling souks of Lebanon. But that was a lifetime ago. And Roger quite likes the Asian tang of the Vietnamese hot bread shop, the oily dredge of run-off that courses through the gutters, and the smell of his own leather.

He is quick to flatter and praise, a ladies-man with a silver tongue and a twinkle in his eye;

“For you da-ling, no problem, no worries! I fix ’em good, eh? Make you look even more good with new boots, good shine, no more so tatty eh?”

And Roger is as good as his word. I entrust my soles to ‘the man that can’ and watch as he tenderly runs his hands over the leather, stroking the history woven into each one. As  he hums softly to himself I read the other sign, proudly displayed next to the 70s mags and crumpled plastic cups:

6 2

The faded ink and cursive high-school flair does little to detract from the message: despite his ‘no tick’ policy, spelt out in texta, Roger is an all-round good egg.

Adventures in Sydney-Panania

Back home in Sydney, a long way from those sighing sands and the halcyon days of my summer holiday. My attorney has been busy and I am wearing her advice like a jewel.

Buy the ticket, take the ride

she said.

Freedom is something that dies unless it’s used

she said.

So here goes. Here’s to freedom. Here’s to scratching the surface and sniffing what’s beneath, delving deep into the decay of urban life and filling my fingernails with tiny sparkled glimpses of Australiana.

First up: Panania with my secretary, the most organised creature I have ever met, an apparition of systematic accuracy to keep me on the straight and narrow, sharpen my pencil and remind me not to forget the baby.

I looked up Panania before we left. I discovered little. It has a Digger’s Association (renowned for its expansive and family orientated alfresco entertaining, dining and function area), a number of churches, a vet, a hotel and a school.

Venturing no further than the Panania cafe for a restorative cuppa we were delivered buttered toast and the story of the day Tony Abbott came to Panania. This set the tone well for the fibro gran-land that unleashed itself just metres from the scurry of tired shops that marked the centre.

The party wasn’t here

In a place where Gloria Jean’s is considered exotic, where the political spectrum narrows to a pinpoint – “You don’t name a park after yourself till yer dead, right? Bunch of monrgels that lot. That Tony, he was lovely” –  and where the cafe owner suggested we should have had our drinks at the amusement arcade because the baby would have liked the flashing lights, it was a relief to escape to the wide, tree-lined residential streets behind.

Home to the archetypal quarter-acre block, each a patch of personal glory, these streets are a chorus of contentment, the ultimate expression of residential suburbia. Picture perfect, shaded by hundred-year-old gums, the houses are complacently normal with shorn concrete paths, sugar-soaped walls and neatly potted geraniums.

The quarter-acre block

The sun beats down on our backs,  the birds squawk and carol from every tree and the thrum of a lawn mower adds a bass line. It is an 80s idyll, complete with legions of cortinas, toranas and geminis, lined up, freshly polished and ready to race. It is a nostalgic utopia.

The Panania Hotel is a behemoth, slunk low beneath the railway lines. It too adds to the bygone scent that lingers in the air, with loud billboards spruiking the Mental as Anything gig in late February. The Mental’s salad years capture the lost paradigm that is Panania, heady days hanging on sunbaked streets, billycarts at dawn, longnecks at dusk, batwing jumpers and cruising the streets with souped-up-gemini-driving boys. Heaven.

I can picture the late-night park-ups

Those torana kids are kids no more. The few people we see stand proud and true, but there is a sense of tired resignation. The young have moved on, the older generation left to mow the lawns and adjust the tarp on the kids’ cars. The place is kept perfect of course, for when the family visits. Not a contemporary square concrete plant pot footing a spiky succulent in sight. Begonias, azaleas and agapanthas rule the borders here.

Heading home caught up in our memories,  we slipped through Revesby. Sliding inelegantly in an abrupt summer rain storm, this filled my vision from the fugged-up window of the Holden:

Blue Light Disco

Yesteryear is alive and well.