A la recherche du Sydney perdu

10 Sep

My politically incorrect recall of the Sydney of my childhood.

Ah, 1955, when I started at The Mine as an eleven-year-old! Sydney was great then. It had trams. It had trains that ran on time. Some of them had steam engines. My brother had a shotgun wedding; teenagers did that sort of thing then. Or some did. The Sutherland Odeon Cinema was at its height. There was no TV. The Argonauts Club was still on 2BL, and Blue Hills still kept everyone enthralled at 1 pm. Australia was busting at the seams with nine million people, not counting Aborigines who were of course not counted and couldn’t vote anyway. Balts and Dagos were just beginning to move into Sutherland Shire. That was a worry. Various no-hopers from the inner suburbs, where the criminals and what was left of the razor gangs lived amid smelly factories and smoky railway yards, sly grog shops, brothels and corrupt police, were being transplanted to The Shire and those mysterious blank spaces out near Riverwood.

Meanwhile, said inner suburbs, like Surry Hills, were being taken over by Southern Europeans who spoke funny, were usually not Protestant, bred like rabbits, had fruit or fish-and-chip shops, drank coffee instead of tea, and had appalling taste in household decoration, as well as skin tones that suggested to some a history of mixing with lesser breeds from Carthage or God knows where. Heaven alone knew what they might get up to after dark, especially when the moon was full. We all know about that hot Mediterranean blood. Also, as my grandmother (bless her) told me, they lived off the smell of an oily rag, were fickle allies or worse in time of war, and sent all their money back to the Old Country to bring even more peasants out to Sutherland.

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The Eastern Suburbs were full of bank managers, Jews, richer reffos, well-known racing identities, and successful criminals, except for the south end where more reffos (poor) and no-hopers lived, with a little clutch of Abos out at La Perouse who did turns for the tourists at weekends with snakes and boomerangs and gave a nice alternative to the Zoo or Luna Park.

Real people lived in The Shire. They still do. Not that I would knock The Shire. I have enormous respect for my old mate and mentor in writing and teaching, Bob Walshe, who was teaching at Sutherland Intermediate High School in 1955. I met him much later, when he was no longer a Communist. In his old age he has been a mainstay of the Sutherland Environmentalists, and I do seriously commend their site, especially the proceedings of the 2001 conference on Sydney’s demography and future. Bob is a living treasure; I mean that.

Nobody real lived on the other side of the Harbour Bridge, where the silvertails looked down on the rest of us from their leafy garden suburbs and pretended they were in England. Nobody at all lived West of Parramatta, or if they did they grew vegetables, raised chickens, or indulged in inbreeding. Some were Chinese and had market gardens; invariably, if one (my father for example) ever did talk to them, they were called “John” and had to be spoken to in pidgin and very loudly.

I miss it all so much. The ham and beef shops that sold ham and beef. The lack of hamburgers. The lack of coffee, and wine only for winos and wogs. Except for muscat, sherry, and porphyry pearl, for the ladies – sometimes. The six-o’clock closing. The drunks. The domestic violence. The unwashed kids. The outdoor dunnies.

But, to change tone rather, there are still delightful quiet corners in this city. They cost, though. Maybe the Mountains really are the go.

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Posted by on September 10, 2005 in Australia and Australian, Cronulla and The Shire, History, immigration, Multicultural, personal, radio, reminiscing, Surry Hills


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