very sydney

Over the last day and a bit I've been thinking about the villages of Sydney. It's common to think of the urban spread as something either amorphous or monolithic, when it isn't. Inner city types sneer at the burbs and 'westies', certain people won't cross the Bridge either way and everyone else thinks North Shore and eastern suburbs types are up themselves. (I was born on the North Shore, in case you were wondering.)

This is all partly because I have family on my mind. I was having dinner with friends last night over in Paddington - on the sports ground side, meaning we had to make our way through Sydney Swans supporters to get there (Swans won, by the way). At one stage of the evening we were speaking of Manly, a suburb I've never lived in but where my parents had a second-hand bookshop for many years, and which I managed on week days for quite a while. But one of my friends remembered it clearly. 'The Manly Book Exchange,' he said. Indeed. These days the Corso seems to be one long eatery, but in those days Manly was full of holiday flats and had a slight bohemian or raffish air. I recall writers coming into the bookshop, Dymphna Cusack with her impossible hairdo and bossy manner, and a fellow whose name I can't recall, natty dresser with moustache and cravat, after second-hand copies of his own books of south seas adventures. Frank Hardy also lived there. And Molly Askin, widow of the notorious NSW Premier, Robin (later Robert) Askin, coming in to buy crime novels. The shop, when we ran it, existed in two locations, and in the second, larger one, my father also had his paintings hanging on the wall for sale.

Anyhow, last night, we left our friends at a late hour in search of a cab, mistakenly heading for Oxford Street (on a Saturday night, what were we thinking?) From the Paddington edge down to Taylor Square all we encountered were hordes of moderately pissed persons, mainly heterosexual, also looking for cabs or milling about various pubs and clubs. Actually, I don't think I saw one obviously gay person. That in itself was kinda odd. It wasn't too ugly, just unsettling. We found a cab outside Arc nightclub in Flinders Street. Good! And we headed home via Redfern and Sydney Park. First, we got the gen about where we should have gone for a cab - South Dowling Street.

As we passed through Redfern, and the cabbie locked the doors, he told us of a recent encounter, assuring us that a locked door wouldn't keep you safe. He told us of seeing an incident where a young guy, 18 years or so, knocked on a window of a stationary car asking for money. After the driver told the kid to 'fuck off', the kid punched a hole in the car's window, reached in, stole the car keys, grabbed the driver by the back of the neck and repeatedly smashed his head against the steering wheel while his female passenger become hysterical, as I suppose you might, as blood and all was apparently everywhere. The kid raced off before anyone else could stop it. It was about five in the afternoon. Shit happens. It's an area where shit happens like that, as any Sydneysider would know. I've had drink containers thrown at my taxi's window while going through there. You're always careful and best not rile anyone. We got home OK, of course.

Today we had to drive over to the Northern Beaches, Mona Vale, to visit my mother. I was thinking of all this as we drove, first through the Harbour Tunnel to avoid any fallout from a 'practice run' in the city by the cops and powers that be for the upcoming and unwanted APEC meeting. I always feel the weight of the harbour waters as we go through that tunnel. Then you hit the north side, the dozens of bitumen and concrete ways of steering cars in various directions north. At that point it seems like any road system in any big city. Shanghai comes to mind for no particular reason.

Then begins the suburbs and memories of my earlier years. Cammeray, with its quaint stone tower bridge leads on to Castlecrag, where I was born, in the old Walter Burley Griffin hospital, which I think has gone now. Dark brick houses, red tile roofs, suburbs on hills. My father built a cape cod style house there after the war (the WW II one). It's still there. In between, small industrial zones, then Roseville Chase and the modern bridge replacing many many years ago a wonderful but rickety bridge and heading into 'new' suburbs, that is, the post-war spread of housing into bush lands. These suburbs are a mix of blond brick sixties housing and newer mcmansion styles. Lots of trees and even more as we turn off to the left, where there used to be the old 'blinking light' intersection. This is Oxford Falls, which is semi-bushland and market garden territory. The Ba'hai Temple is nearby. At this point the drive becomes more pleasant as we skirt national park until we reach the bottom and Narrabeen Lakes, past the Sports Institute. Then, oh dear, we have to stop as I desperately need a loo break. There's a picnic area with the requisite. Right on the lake, sandy grass, she-oak leaves on the ground, 21st century versions of kids play areas, clusters of trees, clusters of families. Picnic areas seem to dot my childhood.

And the northern beaches. My adolescence - the old fibro shacks, the sixties three storey walk-ups, the tacky streetscapes of small industry, the sense of the sea, sand hills, just there - and an alien territory now, with the bloated mcmansions overtaking each little housing block.

I do what I need to do, family-wise, and we finally get back to our own suburb, the traffic jam along Illawarra Road, the Vietnamese butchers and fishmongers, the Tibetan shop, the Happy Cup, the coffee and nut shop run by Lebanese, the busyness of Sunday afternoon shopping that seemed completely absent from the other streets we'd been in today, everything normal as anything is normal. Nothing is normal and I have run out of things to say about all this. My history seems both heavy and irrelevant. Tomorrow I go to work, alongside the suits and junkies, Korean tourists and backpackers, the beggars and blokes that hang round Central. I'll be going back northside this week, I'm sure. Some things come to an end, in the continuum, in this city where they began.


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