Wednesday, November 30, 2005

City of Shadows

Went last night to a presentation related to an exhibition currently showing at the Justice & Police Museum ... haven't managed to penetrate the security at the Museum and see the show yet, though I've tried, haven't brought the book that goes with the show either, I've just been monitoring the publicity thus far; this was the first chance I had to see some images in a decent format. It was extraordinary.

A few years ago someone found out that there was, stored in a warehouse in Lidcombe, a complete set of photographic negatives taken by police photographers over a period of about six decades. These had somehow become detached from the case notes or crime reports that they illustrated, which have since disappeared, so it is in many cases impossible to discover exactly what or who or where had been photographed and why, increasing the mysterious aura that surrounds many of these images.

The early negatives are on glass plates or on acetate. Crime writer Peter Doyle, who delivered the presentation, has spent years going through some of the ten thousand or so that survive. About three hundred are in the exhibition; one hundred and seventy odd in the handsome book that accompanies it; of the rest, Peter reckons at least three thousand are just as good as those he chose to represent. It is a social cache of unparalleled richness. And this refers only to those that come from the period 1912-48.

It was from this cache that he drew the images he projected last night. He's a relaxed and witty guy, extremely locally knowledgeable about inner city Sydney and he'd had the bright idea of using pictures that had been taken in the immediate environs of where we were, Gleebooks in Glebe Point Road. This meant plenty of people in the audience recognised places he showed and, remarkably, that some could even add information to what was already known.

For instance there were a couple of shots of the small park in the churchyard opposite the old Gleebooks, near the corner of St. Johns Road. Peter thought they represented a murder scene but he didn't know for sure. However, a woman in the audience noticed a gate leading from the park into the churchyard and that tweaked a memory she had of a conversation with a 91 year old local woman who lives in the retirement home behind the church. She'd been asking why there wasn't a gate into the churchyard. The old lady said there was, but they took it away after a murder in the park. We all looked at that gate, half hidden under dark bushes, with an undefined but unmistakable menace in the air.

These were beautifully composed and technically superb photographs. Black and white, natch. Stark, eerie, monumental, grim, tragic, fantastic, haunting. The street scenes particularly. And the portraits. Peter offered a possible explanation for their perceived high aesthetic quality. He suggested that the deliberate choice of directors and cinematographers who made the noir films of the 1940s to imitate the conventions of police photography might account for our response to these images. Retrospectively investing them with qualities aestheticized by Hollywood in the '40's in other words. Interesting suggestion, which he did not insist upon.

He also remarked that police photography between the wars attracted young tyros of the kind who perhaps go into IT these days. Young, hungry, talented go-getters who were at the cutting edge of the art/craft. Someone else pointed out how many times the photographer will compose the photograph so as to catch his or her own image somewhere in the picture: in the round of a hubcap, or a mirrored in a window. These self portraits are always faceless. I just thought the images had been made with skill, passion and a sophistication we sometimes deny the past at the same time as we inflate it in ourselves.

I didn't know that the old Sydney morgue was up at the Rocks, where the Tourist Help Centre is now (ha!). Peter said this morgue wasn't the kind of sanitized place we see on CSI, all bright lights and stainless steel. No, he said, it had in fact a slatted wooden floor, with quite wide gaps between the boards, and in those gaps pieces of viscera or flesh or bone or whatever got caught and there they stayed. The smell was indescribable. A woman sitting just in front of me popped up her hand then. She'd worked in the Justice Department in the 1950s and 1960s and remembered how newly appointed magistrates were always given a tour of the morgue. It was a rite of passage. Oh, Sydney ...

I could go on ... but I won't. One final, astonishing, image. It was of a human skull, with the cap sawn off - expertly trepanned. Inside was what looked like a dried brain, but oddly angular, not the round folds and curls of grey or white matter. What on earth ... ? Peter explained the skull had been exhumed for forensic purposes and inside they had found ... a white ant nest.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Taverner's Hill

Just walked over to Leichhardt to see if there was a de Chirico book in the second hand section at Berkelouw Books ... alas, no, though I saw other wonders: the Zukofskys' translation of Catullus in a handsome Cape Golliard paperback, a Life of Francis Drake, Dylan Thomas's Collected Poems, which I used to own, a first edition ... came away with Michael Jackson's Pieces of Music, a friend's copy of which I read years ago, been looking for one ever since.

To get to there from here you have to walk up and over Taverner's Hill. I was thinking only about Giorgio on the way there (yes, I'm in the grip of an obsession) but on the way back I suddenly realised where I was, in another lost suburb of the big town. I believe the name came because there was a watering hole at the top, where weary carters could rest their horses and wet their whistles on the long haul to or from the City. There's still a pub there, so I went in, just to have a look and a beer if I liked the look. It was full of guys with tats and pony tails, hard-bitten women, watching a boxing match on Sky TV, so gave it a miss.

Coming out I saw the Victorian-Italianate Brighton Hall, 1884, its facade beautifully restored, and wondered briefly what used to happen there; crossing Parramatta Road a little way down I noticed the curbing stones, those old, oblong, roughcut sandstock pieces you find along all the early roads. Remembered one in Chippendale that had the word K I L L cut laboriously into it. Always gave me a chill. From there, you get a lovely view down down to Summer Hill, the church steeple rising above the green trees on this rainy but clearing afternoon.

Walked past Petersham Oval, where Bradman made his first century in Sydney club cricket, 1926. Mean SOB that he was. (Stating that opinion could get you killed some places, including the pub with no beer.) The hillock next to Summer Hillock is Dulwich Hillock, which you can also just see from Taverner's Hill. Where John Howard grew up, the fourth son of an embittered garage owner laid off as a fitter and turner at CSR during the Depression. There is speculation that Lyall Howard was a member of the New Guard, a fascist organisation that flourished in Sydney in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The New Guard were scary: mostly ex-servicemen from WWI, they were a kind of militia, fifty to a hundred thousand strong, with all sorts of daft schemes. One was to kidnap the Labour Premier of NSW, Jack Lang, in 1931 or 2, and hold him prisoner while they took over the government. This plan was thwarted because the Big Fella, courtesy his police chief, had infiltrated the New Guard and knew of the plan. While they waited for his limo on Parramatta Road, Jack drove his own car through the backstreets home to Auburn. Gives a whole new dimension to Howard's nickname, Little Johnny Jackboot; and perhaps also explains his malign obsession with grinding unionised workers into the dust. Or, really, anyone he doesn't like.

But I don't want to linger there. No, it was just at the bottom of Taverner's Hill, as I was turning off the main drag towards Petersham Oval, where a luxury car dealership now stands, I saw shimmer into view the matter of an old photo I once saw, of shops that stood on that corner. Walls thin as paper, pole verandas leaning crazy, dust in the street where a pony stood head down before its cart and spectral children wearing boots and hats bowled a hoop up Flood Street. It was there, just for a moment. Then it wasn't.

Monday, November 21, 2005

man hits dog

Driving over to Randwick last night, stopped at a set of lights, idling, I saw a couple of guys passing round the back of a small flatbed ute parked off the road and crammed with tradesman's gear: a generator, tool boxes, other stuff. There was a dog chained up with the gear, a blue-heeler cross by the look of it, and the guys must have done something because it was going off, yammering, snarling, straining at the leash. The guys stopped, came back and then one of them shaped up, in jest I thought: but no, he took a swing at the dog, clouting it on the side of the head. It was an ugly, hard blow and he did it again and then again, somehow eluding the snarling teeth and the dog's frantic attempts to bite. His mate, who was carrying a long necked bottle of beer, tried to drag him away but he was enjoying himself too much and wanted to do it some more. Just then a big bloke in crisp blue denims and cowboy boots came onto the scene, yelling: Fuck off, you fucking cockheads ... The boxing guy all of a sudden didn't seem so brave but I couldn't see the next bit properly because the lights changed then. Last image, in the rearview, was of the two drunk guys scattering back the way they'd come with the big bloke in denims in pursuit. That's life in Waterloo I guess. Returned the same way some hours later, the ute was still parked in the same place but I couldn't see if the dog was still there or not. Probably was. Poor dog, just doing its job.

Monday, November 14, 2005


... to report that Mary Poppins is back on her plinth in Ashfield Park, bird-headed umbrella, crazy-pattern handbag, scarf, umbrella, boots and all. Dr Rizal, within hailing distance down the way, looks pleased; but I thought I saw a glint in Mary's eye. Despite the extra bolts, rods and bars anchoring her down, and the metal weights rumoured to have been set inside her legs, I suspect she might yet fly again. And, next time, I don't think she'll leave her boots behind.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

heard in the street:

Look at us, coupla sad cunts, walking through Summer Hill. Fuck me ... (laughs)

Friday, November 11, 2005

I washed the car this week. I washed the car! I WASHED THE CAR!!!

(it goes even better now)

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The White Lady

Wild in the streets in a white Falcon ... way back in 1991 I think it was, I bought, for $800.00, an off-white 1965 Ford Falcon XP, a model I've always admired and associated with lux and style. Actually running and maintaining a classic car is not the same as admiring one however; now, fourteen years later, while I still own the car, I can't pretend to have restored her to her original glory as I always intended to do. She's out the back as I tap, covered with purple flowers fallen from the jacaranda tree in the next door yard. Mechanically, in pretty good shape: I've had both gear box and engine reconditioned and kept up with all the other dramas associated with old cars bar one: rust. Never sleeps, as we all know. Not sure how bad it is, last time I dared to get a quote it came in at about two and half grand. Plus the interior, apart from the re-upholstered front seat, is a mess. My relationship with this car is complex as any love affair. Many are the times I've thought to sell her; have never in fact even placed an ad. Sometimes she seems almost a part of me; other times, an entity sent to capture and torture me. Despair and exultation in about equal degrees define my feelings towards her. Anyway. The other night, after driving my friend home after the movies, I took the White Lady for a spin. The newly opened and controversial Cross City Tunnel is free for three weeks and I was curious to drive through it. It was dull and even rather tatty for something 'new'. In parts the white tile cladding does not even reach the roof and you can see the deeply scored sandstone that underlies our city. But the car ... went like a dream. Beautiful to drive. When I got the engine reconditioned I found out that she is probably an ex-undercover 1960s police car, because external details re: engine size do not conform to the big 6 motor that's actually under the bonnet. Well, that night, we owned the streets. I felt like just tooling on, south to Eden perhaps, or anywhere really. Now I think, no, whatever happens, I won't sell. I can't. It would be like letting a member of the family go.