Tuesday, July 15, 2008
My friends are coming back from Cambodia on Friday and then I will return to them the car they so generously lent me for the year they've been away, so I book it into European Motor Works in Rozelle and this morning drive it over there for a full service. The guy looks like a Sumo wrestler and has a voice that reminds me of the stone crusher that used to make gravel out of river stones a couple of doors down from where we lived in Burns Street Ohakune but he's jovial enough and is perhaps an honest man too. I leave the car with him and decide I'll walk into the City over the Anzac Bridge to pick up a couple of Sidney Nolan books from the library in the Customs House at Circular Quay. It's a beautiful morning, not cold at all and everything is sparkling as I go by the old power station at White Bay that's been derelict as long as I can remember. As always, I'd like to climb the hurricane wire fence and explore that massive industrial ruin but I don't, I just check out the grove of banana trees growing improbably amongst the weeds in there and pass on, remembering briefly the party at Graham Street, just there across Victoria Road, where in 1987 I met the mother of my children. The White Bay Hotel is closed as well but I do recall when it was open and also the old woman who always used to stand on that corner selling newspapers. There was a song about her. Long long ago, before they built the Anzac Bridge aka the Ironing Board, which I've walked over once before with my kids. Just a few months back. There's dusty trucks coming out of the huge concrete silos which used to belong to the Wheat Board and maybe still does, I don't know. Lots of building going on down there. Pigeons and gulls on the old Glebe Island Bridge and what look like tugs or barges moored alongside and I try to remember what the company was called that used to ply these waters in their green and brown liveried boats ... Harbour Lighterage. All those new cars on the flat wharves and, yes, they are about 80% white. The bridge is so high, so wide, so handsome that it gives me a lift just to be up on it on such a gorgeous morning. A motor scooter passes on the footpath, a few bicycles whizz by, there's a fellow fixing a puncture just by the statue of the Digger. When I'm about halfway over I notice that the old buildings that used to be squats, though derelict, are still there on Bank Street and a sudden vision comes to mind of the seated Buddha I saw sitting down there on a sunny wall one day. There's a Buddha at the mouth of the bay ... I wrote but that's all I recall. There's the green mound where the Bone Char Mill stood with its piles of bones. There are the three palms planted next to the Pyrmont Incinerator: it's gone too but a photo of the shadow of those palms on the north wall will be on the cover of The Evolution of Mirrors when it comes out in a few weeks or months, I'm not sure exactly. Someone is reading a book while riding an exercise bike in the bowels of the big apartment block they erected in place of Burley Griffin's magnificent folly. Funny, I used to lament the passing of these edifices but now, today, like a new emotion, I feel that it's enough that they exist in memory. Thread my way through Pyrmont which is also full of ghosts of buildings and of people I used to know. Passing Paternoster Row I wonder whatever happened to Wayne Tallowin who used to live down there. He was a tearaway guitarist in a band I used to work with, they fired him because he wasn't good enough but I always liked his playing. He sold me a bike once, stolen from Sydney Uni by a gang of Pyrmont street kid thieves he knew. It's solid yuppie territory now. There's the street where a couple of Pommie sailors did a runner on me one night when I was driving a taxi. There's the pub where they used to have topless waitresses, at which I once picked up two guys who had a cardboard box with canaries in it - one of them escaped into the cab and I caught it and took it home and then let it go again. I remember it flying away into a sky as blue as this one is. It's in Miller Street that I pass the first band of Christians, big solid Polynesian boys from one of the islands, maybe Tonga. There's more on the old Pyrmont Bridge, one party stopped, the other walking past them: they both cheer then ask each other where they're from. Then they Hurrah! again. I'd say the United States and Japan or Korea respectively. More Islanders, this time girls, at the City end of the bridge; and up in town there are roving bands of them everywhere, grouped together by nationality, some of them wearing uniform jackets or the same hats. A group of Latinos in red and green, a beautiful girl smiles at me and I'm so startled I almost forget to smile back. I remember that cretin is said to be derived from Christian but the thought seems unworthy. They're like sports teams going about in their groups of ten or fifteen. Italians, Mexicans, Africans, even a bunch of Kiwis, they wear blazers with Tihei Mauri Ora stitched under the breast pockets. Outside the QVB I see a 2 dollar coin lying on the ground and pick it up: a lucky day! Feel like I should give it to the fellow selling The Big Issue outside the Supre store that used to be Gowings but I don't want to read The Big Issue so I don't. Lenny Henry at the State Theatre, he was really funny on Good News Week the other night. Going up Pitt Street Mall I see that half one side of the street is now a building site and there's nobody much around in the darkened cavern of the street. Come out of the murk into Martin Place and there's another band of cretins having their photograph taken in front of one of the public monuments there. They are all wearing stupid felt cowboy hats and are so uniformly blond and blue-eyed I think they must be Aussies ... but then this thin blond blue-eyed older woman in denims comes up to me and asks if I'll photograph her with her group, she has an accent so they probably aren't Aussies after all. I take the pic and hand her back the camera. Where are you from? I ask. She dazzles into a smile and says Germany. I nearly say something about the Nazi Pope but think better of it and give her a pat on the arm instead and say auf Wiedersehen. Her face wrinkles into comic surprise and then the dazzle comes back: auf Wiedersehen! And so it goes, I'm thinking about Apollinaire now, and then about Frank O'Hara and then, outside the back of the Customs House, I see the scooter that passed me on the bridge parked up beside a waiting taxi in the alley there. That's strange. Both the Nolan books are on shelf which makes me really happy, there's also a book of NZ Painting that I leaf through, looking at every image, before leaving the building and going across to Circular Quay to catch the train back to Summer Hill. The quay is awash with cretins of all descriptions, hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, with their lumpy bodies and funny hats and invincible cheerfulness. I remember someone saying that the last time they staged something like this the City ran out of condoms and then I see a headline in The Australian where silly old George Pell is telling us we must populate or perish, presumably so we can outbreed the Muslims and the heathen Africans and the Asian hordes. I'm sick of them all now with their self-conscious cheeriness and unctuous smiles, I just want to look at Sidney Nolan. His Inferno frieze, painted in the Chelsea Hotel in about '64, inspired in the first instance by Robert Lowell's version of The Trojan Women - wow! It's amazing. Some of the Gallipoli paintings which I've never seen even in reproduction, so dark and foreboding, pale or roseate faces coming out of a sort of clotted khaki miasma. In the other book there's a quote from Cynthia Nolan: We live on a thin crust over a bubbling mass of molten lava and the fuel of hell. What's marvellous is that, in spite of everything, we're alive. Do you understand? To make up for the suffering of the living, there's the joy of life. She became a suicide but still, what a good and brave thing to say. That'll do, I think. That'll get me home.