John Clare Writings


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Some time ago when I was still a professional I was asked to write some book reviews for Rosemary Milsom then features editor on the Sun-Herald here in Sydney.

Science and history books were my favourites – also science history if it comes to that, but there were many others. Paul Kelly’s autobiography was pretty good. Actually his prose was often more than good.

Odd memory: Kelly, and indeed Bob Dylan were big fans of Frank Sinatra. So was I. It is more than possible that there are incredulous eyes scanning these sentences. or changes the words of a great song from the American songbook to show that he is hip. But I don’t care. Well, I’m not so keen when he throws in a few rat pack ring-a-dings. Bob Dylan in one of his memoirs said that he listened to Sinatra singing Ebb Tide, and heard the voice of God. I have that record. I know what he means That is austere, not tricky. Grand…

There was one theme in Kelly’s book that I ignored; his praising Melbourne and denigrating Sydney. Give it a rest. I have lived for decades in both. Also a year in New Zealand. Land of the wrong white crowd, according to Ray Sutton, but I can tolerate it. We’ve all seen Lord Of The Rings. One thing in Kelly’s book puzzled me. He talked about St Kilda, a place with which I am perfectly familiar.He declared deep love for “this sweet coast…”. More than he felt for Sydney Harour, “with all its water and land.”

Odd. There are places in Port Phillip Bay where you can barely see across to the opposing coast, if at all, Yet… thinking hard, there are places in Sydney harbour where the other side is intimately close, and none that I can remember where it is vastly remote.  The harbour for me is a fair expanse of water and also a place of intimate coves and areas of quaintness. History, both charming and brutal, still haunts its bays and inlets. I can remember a time when there was no Opera House, but the Harbour bridge was always there, I assumed.

In search of lost time I can quite easily remember  the 1956 Olympic Games – and the bloody water polo match between Russia and Hungary. And the first TV broadcast, also from Melbourne in 1956.  That same year, when I was 16 a bronze whaler shark swam straight at me  in Port Phillip Bay.

 Here in Sydney I rode over the bridge to Careening Cove this morning and remembered that I once had a spinster aunt who lived in one of the top flats in the blocks lining the water around the corner. In those days women who reached middle age and beyond without marrying were called spinsters. When we visited her I spent some time staring out the leadlight windows at the ferries heading for Circular Quay and back toward the heads, and the occasional cargo boat turning toward Darling Harbour. It was a working harbour in those days.

Fort Dennison was out there on a man-shaped island of dark sandstone. Unruly convicts were held in a cell below the waterline. Sometimes the island’s shape suggested a boat and I wondered if a ship of stone could float. Of course not, but that is how the minds of small boys run. The very small Vegemite jar in my aunt’s cupboard connected me to the life of old ladies. Because of the industrial traffic there were few yachts in this stretch. Directly below was a small swimming pool, also sequestered from the harbour by sandstone. I supposed it belonged to the flats. Yes, its size connected it to the tiny Vegemite jar and all things elderly, though I doubt my aunt ever swam.

Like Melbounre later, this side of the harbour was another world. Its style was different in mysterious ways. A kind of apron of slate projected beneath many of the windows of the flats. In fact they were built of thin wooden slats, mostly green. Wealthy people had always inhabited this side of the harbour I believed. Sometimes they appeared, as enigmatic in appearance as they were when seen briefy at a window. My aunt’s ginger cat was sometimes glimpsed down on the side path, an interpenetration of the interior and exterior worlds

Enough of Sydney. I am reminded that Barry Humphries, whose voice has come to resemble that of Cardinal Pell, bewailed the trendification of once hallowed Melbourne suburbs, and he advised those seeking that ancient world of charm to find the more obscure suburbs. Such as Deepdene, wherever that is. I swear I will go there one day. Of course I lived in Essendon, neighbour to Moonee Ponds. Barry got some laughs out of that. Moonee Ponds, not me living near it…

One part of Melbourne that I thought would have filled Barry’s prescription was that run of inner Bay suburbs that included Mentone, Mordialloc and Seaforth. I was not so long ago taken aback to read Eddie Perfect disparaging Mentone, which was where he grew up. I could not understand this. Mentone was then a secluded beach, shallow and backed by trees which in fact screened the residential part from watchers in passing trains. I passed it often on trains on the way to Frankston where the train ended and I hitch-hiked on round the Bay with my spear fishing gear. Toward Mount Martha or Mornington most often.

But back to the train. At some point it crosses a bridge over a canal into which many boats had been crammed. This fascinated me, and I wondered how you would get your boat out if required. The water on an overcast day was dark green, the boats were in the main white. I loved it. The beach was elegant if perhaps lonely in spirit.

In one period there had been a tremendous storm, which had raised actual waves rather than mere wind chop. Boats had been sunk. Suddenly I jumped off the train and ran back to the trees to change in order to actually examine sunken boats! Most remarkable was the fact that one of these was a yacht. It lay on the sand bottom with one large sail unfurled. It slid slowly one way then back again in the remaining swell.

How could the young Edward not find solace from youthful humilations on the elegant and lonely little beach? How could you not take triumphs and failures to such a place, as I once took triumph and a chelsea bun from the cake shop down to Maroubra Beach in the late afternoon after winning  a guinea in a juvenile quiz on the radio. Believe it or not I had identified “a porous volcanic rock” as pumice stone. 

We found pumice stone in the far corner of our backyard when we went down to live in Melbourne in the early 1950s.    

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