When the sun shines in winter on these suburbs it is heaven. That is true, and ‘specially when you are on the bus and the seats are warm against your back. Warm as toast. The wind is cheated. You ride in a mobile shelter. Where? Down King Street, Newtown, then along Enmore Road to Marrickville. It is very cold outside in the wind. It is warm in this shelter and your woollen jumper holds warmth in its cellular structure: its stitches in short. The sky is cloudless blue, so the sun is even and the shadows are all on the one side of structures, like the accents or pseudo shadows on raised lettering. As the morning is well advanced the shadows are slim and mostly vertical. The vistas have become ultra three-dimensional and solid. Solid and very real yet of another time. The sun in winter seems a darker gold but nevertheless very bright. I am not the only one looking out the window. Some read newspapers, and I read a little too. Much of the time we are at the movies. We move ahead and corner and so do the buildings, cars and people on the screen, that is out the windows. Some things move in relation to our movement. Some cross the street or corner independently. We are silent yet somehow companiable.
It would all be more geometrical in the sun if the parapets of shops were not so decoratively figured. Some are straight. That one. And another. Why am I in the bus and not riding my bike? Because I am heading for the Metro shopping centre in Marrickville where I am due for my free bi-annual hearing test. Last time I took my bike and leaned it against a wall while they released deeper and higher, louder and infinitely faint bleeps into my ears (so faint you have to hear a second one to know you did not imagine the first), but this time I rang ahead and they seemed doubtful about the bike, so I am in the bus and it is also a change. The way directly to Marrickville – there is a longer way out through Annandale, across Parramatta Road, up Crystal Street etc. etc. to the main street of Marrickville – is by the two long shopping streets of King Street, Newtown and then Enmore Road. Here the even sunlight lies often on red brick two story buildings with sandstone portals and trims. There is one short stretch near Newtown Station that is almost exactly the same as the immediate surrounds of Hampstead Station on the Finchley Road. I never felt warm in winter there, though I loved it. My son was born in Hampstead Hospital and so was the daughter of the artist Michael Fitzjames. Nor have I ever seen snow or frost in the these suburbs in any season, though it is very cold out of the sun today.
There are few trees here until you reach Enmore Park – unlike Glebe and the back streets of Redfern, where there is a great deal of various foliage. While the city has changed so much during my life that I could be set down blindfolded in a number places, remove my blindfold and not know where I was, the buildings here were all, or almost all, built from the 1860s to the early 20th century. My immediate surrounds have changed as little as those of a Mediaeval peasant or villager from the time of Thomas Hardy. My hearing is still fine I should mention and I enjoyed this little tour so much that I am back again next day on my bike. A red brick catholic church just went by, built in 1903. Our Lady of something…gone, for I am moving quite fast. Even in that moment the strangeness of Catholic churches reaches me in the road with the very unpleasant feeling that we might all indeed be destined for hell. Even though it was not Our Lady Of The Bleeding Heart, the Sorrows, the Perpetual Agony or any such. Some fancy is carried in my head along the streets, swift as most cars in this street: Our Lady Of The Antarctic. I don’t know why but I like that. Catholic red brick can be very bleak and this is a brief bleak moment. Most of the people I know who were once Catholic are much more anti-Catholic than I am. James Joyce did not mind Italian Catholicism. Irish Catholicism was a kind of witchcraft according to Joyce. What can I say? I leave all that, pedalling through 360 degrees .
This is the inner west or, strictly speaking, the south west. There are many bungalows and terraces from the time of Federation, and the style of many, including mansions now subdivided, is called Federation. The terraces are often two stories, even three; the pubs are usually at least three to allow for the secondary commercial function – accommodation. Inside the fascinating Metro – very much in the present day in its massing of goods its ordered fluorescent, iridescent and bright primary coloured jumble – I wheel my bike about by the back of the seat, milling freely, unobstructed nor threatening. Here is a little plasticised circular arena where a man is exhibiting live lizards. A blue tongue and what he calls a dragon right now. He walks around the perimeter of his little temporary rented space while these two cling to his jumper. The little children, held up by parents, put their hands on the lizards and let them slide by, their cool and dry skin. Lizards are not slimy as our expert tells us. There is infinite kindness in their wide eyes, their open mouths and their soft hands. There are many races, some very black. He smiles on all. Their mothers (it is a weekday) love them. So do I. I love them so deeply. At these times I am proud to be Australian. It has not turned out as those who commanded us to love our country when we were children might have wished. But they might love it too as it is if they were here. I love it too. I don’t always love it. When I went to Brisbane for the last time to see my son I endured a white supremacist’s rail (no pun etc.) from central Station to Hornsby. The rail was really directed at the foreigners in the carriage, but he expected me to back him up. Instead I could not help pointing out some of his many errors (e.g. Mugabe was not the boss of South Africa) and his anger was gradually redirected at me. He called me an intellectual (eh?), then offered to fight me, standing over me with his fists ready to bash as soon as I straightened up and tried to stand.
‘Do you want to fight an old man?’ I asked, stalling to distract him and roll clear.
‘Yes!’ he said.
‘I guess you’re an old fashioned kind of guy,’ I remarked.
‘Then how come you swear your head off in front of the ladies?’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said a woman across the aisle,’
She headed toward the buffet car, where we could see staff working. He followed, calling her a slut.
The guards entered at Hornsby and took him off. They seemed quite well disposed to him. For a while he stood with them on the platform and explained himself. They affably nodded agreement, shrugging their shoulders at the curtailment of free speech they had to enforce. They shared a joke.
And then we began to move, finally.
A while ago a young friend of a friend took three guards to court for assault and false arrest. No one held out much hope for him, until his lawyer leapt up and asked, ‘Are these men permitted to carry their guns in court?’ They were escorted out to hand their guns over and things turned around at that point.
Back in Glebe I see Richard Ratayszac, a double bass virtuoso who has been seriously ill of late. He hates his native Poland with a harsh intensity. Today while I lean on my bike he explains the complicated veins of hatred that run through Eastern Europe, as bad as the Middle East. I tell him that over all Maroubra Bay or Maroubra Beach accepted many races, refugees and migrants, with no serious trouble. ‘Australia,’ he says, ‘seems to have pacified many fanatics.’
Hmm, well…We talk about the Snowy River Hydro-Electric Scheme, a marvel of engineering and a model of multi-racial co-operation. Also with only one industrial disagreement when men were put off. In 1954, still only 14, I arrived there in the night, hungry as hell and looking for work. Yes, right in the middle of the strife. They wouldn’t have hired me anyway. Everyone seemed to know at a glance that I had run away from home. Then I stole a car. Am I ashamed? Yes, but not so much now. It was a long, long time ago and it was also an adventure. You are aching to mention the Bra Boys. That was territorial but not racial. irksome though they may have been, the bra Boys were multi racial and believed in that principle.
Le Tour de France is on the television tonight, and so is the World Cup. For me the Tour grabs most of the time. Also the State Of Origin, if we must find some hatred.
We have chaps bouncing with egotistical energy who have found an absolute to defend. No, not Queensland. Freedom of speech currently. This transcends everything. Well, in my view nothing transcends everything else in all circumstances. Would you like to hear my defence of honour killings?