Essay: Fiona Wrighton Cronulla

Back to Cronulla

On the first properly cold day of winter this year I went back to Cronulla. It took me a while to remember how long it had been since I last had been here, but I realised, eventually, that it was when my sister-in-law had had a birthday lunch at a restaurant next to North Cronulla beach, when she’d been almost unbearably pregnant with my eldest, now five-year-old, niece. She’d had a difficult pregnancy, with morning sickness that lasted the full nine months, and I remember the two of us getting very excited, towards the end, during a conversation in which we listed foods that were good to throw up – bananas, ice-cream, noodles – and those that were awful: curries, sourdough, squid; her body suddenly acting in the way that mine had been, by that stage, for seven or eight years, although for far more common, easily-understood, and temporary reasons. You’re a pair of sickos, my brother had said.

There was a thin rain slicing from a low sky, and the huge palms that line Gerrale St were sheened and glossy in the wet. I met my family in the RSL, which is perched on the crest of a hill and built almost entirely out of windows, looking out over the sea. It had been even longer since I’d been inside this building: I used to visit in my early twenties, when the place had swirling, multi-coloured carpet and served lurid green cocktails in bulbous glasses called ‘Stoinkas’, derived from the local slang – ‘let’s get stoinkered, ay?’– and the inevitable Sex on the Beach. My friends and I would knock them back until the sun set, then walk up to the main street, along roads that, broadly curving, followed the line of the ocean so that we never really lost sight of the beach, or the clusters of teenagers scattered across it, drinking out of paper bags, stumbling and letting out sharp bursts of laughter, even though it was barely 6 pm. In the plaza, we’d order pizzas that I wouldn’t eat, the Smirnoff Ices that I’d drink instead; we’d eventually fall asleep on the lounge room floor of someone’s parents’ house in Woolooware or San Souci. The RSL has been renovated since, it now has dark wooden beams and neutral-toned cane chairs, craft beers and rosé behind the bar. As my family and I left, we passed my primary school music teacher signing in by the door.

My brother had booked a lunch in an Italian restaurant on the beach to celebrate our parents’ wedding anniversary, their fortieth. In the weeks beforehand, he had explained the choice of restaurant to me – it’s a place he had been to recently, with two of his friends, who told him that food is their hobby: they travel, interstate and overseas, especially to eat at famous restaurants, in the same way that skiers might travel to Switzerland or Japan to try out famous snowfields, or a film-buff might travel to LA – and I love this idea, the joy in it. They’d had a lovely meal, my brother explained, and it was all share plates, which generally does make it easier for me, as I’m not faced with a huge meal on a huge plate, all of my own. We couldn’t decide on which dishes to order, so left the selection to the restaurant staff – and I did my best to stay calm as round after round of beautifully-plated courses came our way.

There was a plate of bresaola, salami and pickles, a tartare, a creamy burrata and tomato dish. A huge plate of gnocchi in a truffled sauce, rigatoni with a ragu that fell to pieces on the fork. An enormous veal schnitzel, almost twice as wide as I am, then two whole baked snappers, their eyes creepily opaque, tiny teeth clenched. The pasta was handmade, the gnocchi softer and fluffier than any I’d eaten before. It was beautiful food, truly and terribly wonderful – because for once I actually felt like I was missing out. I was cautious with my meal, aware that any of these dishes might make me throw up, and eventually something did. I left the three-hour-long lunch feeling hungry, and wound tight with anxiety and disappointment. My oldest niece, bored at one point with the meal, had asked her mother, why are we eating so much food for lunch? and all the other adults had chuckled, out of the mouths of babes! But oh, I wanted to say, I know exactly what you mean.

My boyfriend, who doesn’t drink much, drove my parents back to Menai, before we continued heading back to the inner west, and by the time we hit the motorway I was in tears. It was exhaustion, it was the unfairness of my illness, it was irrational and I knew that, especially as I normally don’t get rattled like this anymore. I’m normally able to shrug off my discomfort, to flush away the fact of my illness alongside its material evidence; it wasn’t until a few days later that I realised exactly what it was that felt so awful and irreconcilable to me that day: not only had it been five years since I had last been in Cronulla, but it had been four years, almost exactly, since I had last eaten in an Italian restaurant – for my mother’s sixtieth birthday, and it hadn’t gotten easier at all.

And at the same time, in the intervening time, so much had changed outside of me. Cronulla was physically different, the RSL unrecognisable from the image of it I still carried within me, a high-end restaurant suddenly perched where the Hog’s Breath Café used to be, and suddenly serving handmade pasta, raw steak, shaved truffles. I felt like I’d Rip-van-Winkled through what I’d been hearing about, vaguely, as ‘Australian’s food revolution’ or ‘the MasterChef effect’ on our vast and sprawling suburbs, but also that I’d looked away as a place, so important to my childhood and adolescence, had grown and changed, as all places inevitably do. Cronulla had become glossier, denser with apartment blocks and units, the suburb somehow, I realised, more urbane. I think we measure, in part and often unconsciously, urbanity through food, through the spread of café culture and nighttime dining, of cuisines inspired by, but not too mundanely faithful to, cosmopolitan influences, the timely uptake of fashionable ingredients and fit-outs. (This kind of eating Ghassan Hage  has referred to as ‘multiculturalism without migrants’, although he sited it, in 1997, in Newtown, where I now live, not in these outer suburbs.)

Cronulla had changed, and the image of it I still carried was one that had set in amber, and had become as kitsch and heavy as a paperweight – not to mention as obsolete. (And I felt like a wanker.) And this upset me, so deeply and deplorably, because one of the things that scares me most about my illness, is that I feel, sometimes, that I have calcified, at least in parts, beneath the pressure it exerts on me each day, and I never feel this more keenly as when I’m confronted by external change.

Menai, the suburb I grew up in, is almost exactly halfway between Cronulla and Bankstown, I like to say. As children, our summer weekends would often swing between these poles: Bankstown for the shopping centre, the cinema, my grandparents’ trim fibro house, Cronulla for the beach, and the old-fashioned ice-creamery alongside it. We had yellow, foam-bellied bodyboards, and would catch the already-broken waves close to the shoreline, bouncing along wildly on top of the water. I was never much of a swimmer, although I loved – I still do – wading out beyond the breakers, feeling the pull of energy, the tug of the current on my body as the waves rose and fell. I’d daydream out here, alone and in the quiet, bumped and buffeted about.

But Cronulla didn’t become important to me, as a place, until my late teenage years; we’d go there, my rabble of friends and I, to play, perhaps, at being adults. I want to say that the beach, this liminal space between solid land and sea, is somehow suited to the liminal time of adolescence, that time of uncomfortable and uncontrollable transition and change. But I know the real reason for the time we spent there is more practical – there are so few public spaces available to young people, to hang out in that daylong and weirdly timeless way that teenagers do, fewer still that are cheap enough for the minimum-wage weekend earnings that we’d only just begun to work for. Even at Cronulla, even then, the local council would pipe classical music through speakers in the plaza and its side-streets as a deterrent for precisely this kind of ‘loitering’. My friends lived mostly in and around Hurstville – Penshurst, Peakhurst, Blakehurst – or Riverwood, none of them as far south or west as I. We’d been thrown together in an academically-selective school not local to us all. We didn’t have a common ground, a place familiar to us all from our all-too-recent childhoods. But Cronulla was close enough for us to travel to on our own, staying on the train until its terminus, and far away enough from our parents to feel somehow illicit, somehow exciting.

As teenagers, we’d tumble out at the station and wander through the surf shops, the junk shop, the incense-heady Tree of Life before heading to the beach, and we’d picnic on the children’s play equipment in Dunningham Park, which so slowly gives way to sand. Occasionally we’d share a plate of nachos and banana smoothies in a café; only one of my friends, the impossibly precocious and incredibly glamorous Eleanor, drank coffee. We didn’t surf, and rarely swam – I think we were too self-conscious for that, although we never would have said so at the time. For my brother and his friends, of course, it was different – his teenaged trips to Cronulla were spent mostly in the ocean; as a result, he has had four basal cell carcinomas cut from his neck and face, and he is only thirty-six.

Mine is, of course, a very different teenage experience of the place than the one for which Cronulla is famous, that of Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey in their adolescent memoir Puberty Blues – a book I didn’t read as a teenager, but only came across years later, more than thirty years after its original publication in 1979. The two protagonists, Debbie and Sue, do not swim at Cronulla – although for them, this is because it’s unthinkable, in their social circle, to do so. Girls are expected to wait about on the beach in order to watch their boyfriends surf, occasionally running up to the kiosk to buy banana fritters or meat pies for them to devour; they look forward to rainy weekends, because only then can they actually spend time with the boys. Their Cronulla is dominated by the surf, by tightly-knit and defiant bands of locals, each of whom, they state, ‘resents the intrusion of any other tribe on to their beach’.

In some respect, I think, all teenagers are tribal, because all teenagers are ill-defined, still so new and uncertain in themselves that they only way they can describe themselves is in opposition to something else. In some respect, I think all of Sydney’s suburbs are tribal, separated as so many of them are from other parts of the city by the natural barriers of the harbour, the rivers, the hills, the man-made tangle of poorly-connecting public transport. My friends and I were outsiders in Cronulla – and would have been too in the earlier Cronulla of Debbie and Sue – but we wore this proudly: we’d openly scoff at the young women shivering in their bikinis in the Plaza in mid-winter, their Southern Cross tattoos jutting out beneath their hips. The difference wasn’t only territorial, I suppose – my friends and I prided ourselves on dressing differently, with the coloured-hair and mismatch of the tail end of grunge, maybe it was gendered, because we were all women; it may also have been racialised –my school drew students from the length and breadth of southern Sydney, so we were a diverse crew, and this became all the more obvious against the prevailing whiteness of the beach – although I don’t think I understood this at the time.

In Puberty Blues, Debbie and Sue define themselves first in terms of which beach they’re allowed to frequent: South Cronulla, or Dickheadland, where they sit at the beginning of the book, alongside the bad surfers, ‘the Italian family groups and the “uncool” kids from Bankstown’; then North Cronulla, to which they graduate after ‘dropping’ their daggy boyfriends; and finally Greenhills, the beach furthest from the suburb proper, which the ‘ultimate surfie gang’ frequents. ‘To graduate into the surfie gang,’ they explain, ‘you had to be desired by one of the surfie boys…You had to be not too fat, but not too skinny. You had to be not too slack, but not too tight. Friendly but not forward. You had to wear just enough make-up but never overdo it.’ These were exactly the girls my friends and I would sneer at, even though our friendships too were codified with rules, all the more insidious for being unarticulated. Because we wanted to be different, we never spoke of the things that defined our tribe, made us the same. The rules of adolescence are terrible and complicated, especially for girls, and regardless of whether it is 1979 or 1999, that year that seemed to us so potent and foreboding of change.

But the reason Debbie and Sue’s awfully gendered role-playing on the beach, their determined and continual marking out of their territory and tribe are so disturbing to me now is that they read, perhaps inevitably, like some kind of prescience. Debbie and Sue’s repeated injunctions are against ‘the Bankies, Towners or Billies’, the outsiders from the west, against whom the Cronulla surfies ‘wage an endless war’. The Bankies come, Debbie explains, from ‘the greasy Western surburbs’ and are ‘easy to spot’ because of their cheap boards, unfashionable jeans, and one-piece swimming costumes; later, she describes them as ‘tattooed, greasy, bad-surfing undesirables’. The difference is not only territorial – ‘You didn’t need to come from Bankstown to be a Bankie,’ Debbie states – it is class-based, and more importantly, it is racialised. It’s not a big step from these oppressive, objectifying sexual relations and protective, tribal identities, here in 1979, to the build up of small incidents and angers that exploded in Cronulla in the summer of 2005: one of the charges laid against the ‘lebs and wogs’ by the surfies was that they had been disrespecting our women –women not unlike Debbie and Sue, waiting on their towels in their bikinis for their boyfriends – on the beach.

My brother received the infamous, rapidly-circulating text message in the December of 2005, and sent it on to me, deliberately, to rile me up. Had the term existed then, I was the kind of woman who would have been labelled a social justice warrior, passionate and mouthy, and my brother found this (he still does) hilarious. It reads, in part, and with its original punctuation intact, ‘every Fucking Aussie in the shire, get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day’, and ‘this is our beach and they’re never welcome back.’ He wasn’t caught up in the furore, although I have wondered, sometimes, if he might have been, had we lived closer to Cronulla – he was still a young enough man to be susceptible to risk, to thrill, to unthinking, bad decisions – but I also know that this is unfair to him: he was already training to enter the police in 2005, and his needling of me has always been entirely for show.

There were other phrases I’ve never been able to forget: we grew here, you flew here and Fuck Allah, I love Cronulla. There was a sausage sizzle set up in a carpark, with a sign that read FREE SNAGS NO TABOULI. A whole pig spit-roasted on the beach, skin tight and red and shiny.

What I remember most clearly about that time, though, were the days of tension beforehand. Like my friends, my siblings and I all stayed away from the beaches during that week, but we heard helicopters passing over our backyard, far more cars than usual roaring through our suburb; we watched the news each night and listened to the heightening rhetoric of the locals and commentators alike. We knew something was brewing, the thick summer air felt charged, electric. I was nauseous with anxiety, maybe even fear.

On the day the storm eventually, perhaps inevitably, broke, I drove to our local shopping centre, I can’t remember why exactly, perhaps it was just something, anything, to do amid all the high feeling and vague threat. I had just turned 22, and drove my mother’s old car, a three-door, jellybean-purple Hyundai Excel. I’d been losing weight, by this stage, for almost three years; I kept front seat pushed as far forward as it would go so I could see over the steering wheel. I can’t think, that is, of anyone who might look less threatening than I did, but as soon as I turned on to the main road I was pulled over by a broad-shouldered policeman, who wanted to search the car and boot in case I was carrying weapons. This happened twice more in the days that followed. The suburb I grew up in is almost exactly halfway between Cronulla and Bankstown, and you need to drive through it to cross from one place to the other.

The Cronulla riots distressed me deeply, disgusted me as well. I know I’m not alone in this – the events of those few days were horrific, the images that circulated through the media shocking in their violence, the ugly, twisted expressions on the faces of young people who looked so similar to my neighbours, my siblings, myself. There are two of these images in particular that I’ll never forget: in one, a crowd of muscly men with their fists raised and surfer-long hair dangling in their eyes surround a single, much smaller man in a tight, white shirt and jeans; he is curled over the hood of a car, his arms protecting his head. In the other, a group of young men are almost climbing over each other in their attempt to get to the dark-haired man facing away from the camera, sitting on one of those sweaty vinyl seats that my thighs would stick to every time I caught the train to Cronulla in summer, the high train windows only opening outwards at the narrowest of angles, and always with a juddering thud. Most prominent in the photo: the beautifully yellow-blonde hair of one of the attacking men, the Australian flag worn as a superhero-cape by another. And fists, raised above the head, the arms below them sinuous and taut.

I have never been punched in my life, have never felt a blow like that against my body. I’ve never punched another body either, and I know that this is only because I have been fortunate, that the circumstances that might change this are all to easily imaginable to me, especially as a woman, and especially as woman who often walks alone, in urban and suburban spaces, by day and night alike. In each of these images, the camera has caught these fists in flight, moments before an impact that I still can’t quite imagine.

But what I immediately could imagine, what I can still remember, were the places in these images, the spaces that I knew so well. The interior of a too-old Sydney train, pulling up at the terminus of Cronulla station, which looks strangely like a school playground, asphalted over and gated with slender metal poles, painted a pale apricot, and creaky on their hinges. The car park that runs the length of North Cronulla beach on an ever-increasing incline and is always littered with the hard-centred orange fruits of the palm trees planted at regular intervals behind the curb. Eloura Street, Gerrale Street, Waratah Street, Nicholson Parade. It was, in a sense, a shock of familiarity: I’d never seen these places in the pages of my newspapers before, never seen them at the centre of public consciousness and national debate. They’d only ever existed for me in the most immediate, physical sense, and here they were, suddenly abstracted, suddenly unreal.

But there was something else at play here too: I’d always felt different, somehow, in my suburb, different from those other kids who looked like me, different from my neighbours’ children, different from the Surfies and the Bankies alike, unhomely in the very place that was supposed to be my home. In some sense, these days, I think this is the experience of any writer, just as it is the lot of any adolescent, and I’ve only realised as I’ve grown older and moved away that I’m unlikely to ever feel anything other than different wherever it is I might live. But at the time, and with all the righteousness that 22-year-olds still have coursing through their veins, I felt that I suddenly, and unequivocally, had evidence of my difference: my suburb was the kind of place that could so easily become embroiled and implicated in this kind of ugliness and suddenly it felt good and right that I didn’t even want to think that I belonged.

I moved away from my home suburb not long afterwards. This had nothing, of course, to do with the riots, and everything to do with independence – I’d recently returned from travelling overseas, to places entirely unfamiliar and unknown to me, where I’d been living by myself and hanging out with groups of friends who spent their evenings together at each other’s houses, or in pubs and bars; and I’d come back, too, to an hour-long commute by car to the ugly office tower in Strawberry Hills where I was working. I moved into a tiny upstairs bedroom in a shared terrace in the backstreets of Newtown, near the Imperial Hotel, famous for its drag shows, and the School of Performing Arts; I placed my writing desk beneath a windowsill that was so crumbly with termites that the previous tenant had strapped it together with floral-patterned wallpaper in the hope that it would hold. I’d fallen in love with Newtown as a teenager, had wanted to live there ever since, and I loved the unquestionable urbanity of the area. There were run-down pubs on every corner, strange and dusty shops selling second-hand books, Fijian groceries, Tibetan prayer flags, cafés and an art-house cinema. I bought my first-ever theatre subscription, a cheap deal for under-25s, went to my first raucous house parties where I didn’t have to pre-arrange how I’d get home and held hungover picnics in the grounds of Camperdown cemetery, with its cracked and crooked headstones and occasional vaulted tombs. I rode a bike – which was eventually stolen – to work in the small hours of the morning, often past people who were still staggering home from the night before; I walked the streets past gardens planted with magnolias and frangipanis, ancient fig trees.

I mention this mostly because Newtown too has changed, is still changing, and although this saddens me sometimes, it isn’t shocking, perhaps because my history in this place is less deep, lasting as it has for only eight or nine years, rather than the thirty years I’ve lived with Menai, with Cronulla. For my grandparents, this may well have been different: they left St Peters and south Newtown for the south-western suburbs shortly after the second world war in search of a better life, would often tell me stories of catching trams to the Enmore Theatre, playing football at Henson Park, shopping for children’s dresses called ‘Gorgeous Gussies’ near the smokestacks of Sydney Park, none of us then knowing that I’d repeat their relocation in the opposite direction, in search of a life of my own. The run-down pubs have one-by-one been refurbished, and two of them – including the Newtown Hotel, one of the first gay bars in Sydney – have recently been bought by Merivale, gutted, then reopened unrecognisable (although the pokie lounges stayed open during all of the renovations). There’s a MadMex, a Pieface, two frozen yoghurt chains, a Max Brenner (and the anti-Israeli protests outside of it have stopped); the cinema now screens comic-book blockbusters alongside its indie program. A Woolworths has opened around the corner from that first sharehouse, and has photoshopped its usual advertising banners, so that the blonde actor grinning madly as she hugs a hot croissant also has a tattoo on her tricep. I’ve been watching this, the whole time knowing I am implicated – it’s young, middle-class people like me who are driving these changes, I buy expensive drinks and sourdough bread right alongside them. But it also seems to me that this very urban space is suburbanising – more chain shops, more baby shops, more renovations – while at the same time Cronulla, and so many suburbs like it, has been urbanising. So too is the inner west the only area in Sydney that is growing less diverse each time the Bureau of Statistics makes its measures.

I have an old friend who, with her husband, now lives a few suburbs away from Cronulla, almost halfway again between it and the suburb where we both grew up. It’s great for them – they’re close to the shopping centre, to the council offices where they both work, to their family and friends, and to the restaurant strips in Miranda and Cronulla where they spend a lot of time. I’ve been aware of this, dimly, for a while, but never listened properly when they talked about the places they had tried out, the elaborate and impressive meals they’d eaten there. I know in part that this was jealousy – these meals just seem like one more impossibility to me, one more pleasure that’s denied – but it was also a failure of imagination, and, even worse, a lingering, defensive disdain for the place in which and to which I’d felt so different all those years ago. It took going back to Cronulla for me to really understand this, to appreciate the rituals and the pleasures that they find there. (And I felt like a wanker.)

In my very early twenties, sometime between visiting Cronulla with my friends and the riots that changed my, and so many other people’s, relationship with the place, I started driving there, early on a weekend morning, and walking alongside the beach. There’s a path, The Esplanade, that follows the shoreline, from Wanda Beach, past Eloura Beach, North Cronulla, South Cronulla, Green Hills, before curving around the peninsula towards Gunnamatta Bay. In parts, there are cliffs that crumble towards the water on one side, big-windowed apartment blocks and squat and sprawling houses on the other; it’s populated mostly by small groups of blonde women pushing prams or pulling at the leads of small, white dogs. It’s beautiful, and every time I walked there I’d watch the surfers bobbing like corks dangerously close to the rocks, feel the pull of the horizon, the salt sharp in my lungs.

I do this still, most weeks, although now I drive from Newtown to the steep hills of Bronte, walk along the much more famous Coast Walk past Tamarama and Mackenzies Bay and along the rock pools that lead into Bondi. I know now, like I didn’t then, that what releases in me when I do this is anxiety, that there’s something about the physicality of walking, the solitude, the force of weather on the coastline, that works upon me. Every time I walk here, just like every time I walked The Esplanade, the place looks different – there are glorious, high-summer days when the water is almost green, and crystalline, windy days when the waves are frothy as washing-up water, the days I love most, heavy, grey days, when the sky is like a bruise and the water restless and dark beneath it. In winter, the hot pink, tassled blossom of pigface tumbles down the cliffs; after a storm, the sandstone overhangs drip and slowly grow mossy. The beach is elemental, and perhaps this is why we expect it to be changeable, mercurial. But so too are our cities, our suburbs, as fluid and permutable as the people who move through them, and whatever weather that they bring. It’s just harder to see for our own histories, and the narratives we build from them, the way we try to demarcate our difference or similarity as we do so.

What stories do the places we live, write and work in tell? This essay is part of Writing NSW, a major Sydney Review of Books series devoted to place. We’ve asked seventeen writers to reflect on the shifting relationships between culture and place. The essays we will publish over the coming months are rooted in the geography, culture and social life of NSW; together, they explore new formal frontiers for the essay and map a diverse set of physical and imaginary places.

Featuring: Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Vanessa Berry, Luke Carman, Felicity Castagna, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Anwen Crawford, Peter Doyle, Tom Lee, Anthony Macris, Peter Minter, Mark Mordue, Suneeta Peres da Costa, Matt Thompson, Ellen Van Neerven, Alison Whittaker, Ed Wright, and Fiona Wright. We’re grateful to Arts NSW for funding this project.

Join the essayists on 12 November for a free day of discussion on writing and place at the Bankstown Arts Centre. Details here

Works Cited

Ghassan Hage,  ‘At Home in the Entrails of the West: multiculturalism, ethnic food and migrant home-building’ in Helen Grace, Ghassan Hage, Lesley Johnson, Julie Langsworth and Michael Symonds (eds) home/world: space, community and marginality in Sydney’s West, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1997.
Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, Puberty Blues, Picador, Sydney, 1979.

Published September 30, 2016
Part of Writing Place: The SRB has been publishing new writing devoted to place since 2016. All Writing Place essays →
Fiona Wright

Fiona Wright is a writer, editor and critic. Her book of essays Small Acts...

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