‘It is as if one can see where one has come from and where one is going . . .’Antigone Kefala
How can we tell the story of places where families with limited means came and went and made a living of sorts, places that act as meeting points between the old and the new, the long established and the newly arrived, where each generation is given the opportunity to understand itself as different from a previous generation and, hence, able to break away? How can we describe the emotions that characterise these places, emotions that contain just enough volition to push a person out into the world in search of something better? How can we convey the manner in which these places remain behind, providing shelter when the noise of all that they had made possible becomes too confusing, or the feeling of strangeness experienced when we return to these familiar places and discover that everything we thought we understood about their nature was simply a product of our wants and needs? How can we turn this unsettling realisation into a story, not just for ourselves, but also for the people who brought us to these places, people that we loved and spurned and whose lives are bound to ours in ways too complex for us to understand?
Recently, I came across a photograph of an area of Newcastle that was taken from a position high up in the building located at the corner of Hunter and Pacific streets that was opened in 1960 as accommodation for nurses. Directly below the photographer’s vantage point is Pacific Park, bounded, as it was in those days, on one side, by the Royal Newcastle Hospital and, on the other, by the Hunter Street bus terminus. The left hand side of the photograph is dominated by a cluster of terrace houses. Directly above them one can just make out the outlines of Fort Scratchley perched on the headland overlooking Nobby’s Beach. If we follow the line of the coast in the other direction, our gaze takes in the Ocean Baths, the Canoe Pool, located adjacent to the baths, and, finally, Newcastle Beach itself. The only thing that impedes our view of these landmarks is the Esplanade Hotel, whose rear windows look back toward the camera. The darkened windows and adjoining empty lot that has been turned into a makeshift carpark indicate that the photograph was taken during the long period of its dereliction after it had ceased trading.
This is how I remember the hotel, not as a functioning drinking hole for the locals, but, like a number of other structures throughout the East End of Newcastle, in a state of ruin, bidding its time before the bulldozers arrived and completed the destruction. In the meantime, my friends and I would look up at its boarded doors and windows and exchange stories about the terrible acts committed by our peers late at night in its abandoned rooms.
The photograph appears in a handsome hardcover book on the career of Bruce Mackenzie, one of Australia’s most renowned landscape architects. During the 1970s, Mackenzie made his reputation by redesigning a number of Sydney harborside parks. Later, he oversaw the creation of the Sir Joseph Banks Reserve on Botany Bay, the rebuild of the Coogee Beach Beachfront Plaza and the redesign of the Ku-ring-gai Bicentennial Park. In 1980 he was hired by the conservation-minded Lord Mayor of Newcastle, Joy Cummings, to lead the redesign of Pacific Park. The project was part of a larger plan to rejuvenate an area of the city that began the twentieth century as a fashionable holiday destination, but, in more recent times, was better known for the soot produced by the local power station that would cover the parked cars and cling to the residents’ washing.
The story that Mackenzie tells in the book concerns how this relatively small commission grew into a much larger exercise involving the demolition of existing structures, road closures, and the design of a barrier to protect the park’s vegetation from the oceanfront exposure. Inevitably, this expansion brought him into conflict with the City Engineer, who was uncomfortable with the way in which the redesign impacted surrounding streets, bus lines, and traffic flows. ‘It seemed to me that this may have been perceived to be a step into engineering territory’, Mackenzie recalls, ‘and in 1980, in Newcastle, some distance from Sydney, landscape architecture was still not that far removed from gardening’.
Mackenzie illustrates his account of the project with detailed architectural drawings and elevations showing the proposed park and its integration with the nearby beach. He also includes colour photographs that document the fruition of his plans. By 1983, the Esplanade Hotel had been demolished. The termination of Hunter Street at Pacific Street and the relocation of the bus terminus allowed Pacific Park to incorporate the area across the road from the bus terminus. While Shortland Parade still separated the park from the beach front, a new pedestrian underpass meant that park-goers were able to continue their journey to the beach unimpeded by the traffic.
No doubt Mackenzie’s ambitious approach succeeded in beautifying the park and contributed to the transformation of the East End. But it’s also true that the relocation of the bus terminus and closure of the roads came at a cost to local businesses. With less passing traffic to draw on, one by one, the milk bars and cafes that lined the top of Hunter Street shut down. The next to go were the chemists, newsagents, and other retail outlets. Eventually, even the grand old Newcastle Post Office closed down. Of course, other factors played a part in the area’s decline. The increasing mobility of the population and the establishment of a number of large suburban shopping centres meant that fewer and fewer people came to the city to do their shopping. And as fewer and fewer people came to the city, the number of people who frequented Pacific Park also declined. For a number of years, the area around the park resembled a well-tended ghost town. It was only after the demolition of the Royal Newcastle Hospital in 2007 and the transformation of the nurses’ accommodations and surrounding buildings into residential apartments that the area showed signs of coming back to life.
Looking out from the windows of the nurses’ accommodations, the photographer who captured the impressive vista probably had little idea of the changes to come. Because the photograph is uncredited it is not possible to determine whether it was produced for the design submission or whether it was sourced by the architect from the city’s archives. Its function is indicated by the presence of a white dotted line that designates the parameters of the proposed extension of the park. Within these parameters, three strategically placed rectangular labels containing the word ‘Demolish’ spell out what is soon to disappear. These labels reinforce the feeling of looking at a part of Newcastle that is gone for good. In my own case, when I look at the photograph of the old park, I see an area of the city captured at a particular time in its history as well as a place where an important part of my family’s past unfolded.
This was the part that occurred after our arrival in Australia from Cyprus in 1966. By the time my parents purchased the lease on the kiosk located on the promenade at Newcastle Beach they had been through a failed business, health problems and, in my mother’s case, bouts of depression. The purchase of the lease was the start of a new chapter, a chance to prove to themselves as well as their family members that the decision to migrate to Australia had been worth it. They purchased the lease in April of 1974. I was in the first year of high school. My younger sister was in the year below and my eldest sister in the year above. In August of 1973, a master plan for the East End revealed that, as part of a proposed extension of Pacific Park, the surrounding buildings were to be demolished. The first to go were the takeaway food businesses and cafes – the California Café, a Shipmates selling donuts and soft serve ice cream, a pinball parlor and, right next to the park, the impressive Kosciusko Café that took up the bottom floors of two adjoining properties. The demolition of the Esplanade Hotel took much longer. After closing for business in 1973, it became the subject of a lengthy dispute between the local residents group and the council keen to push forward with the implementation of the master plan. By the time it was demolished on the 24 November 1980, its dereliction had become an essential part of the character of the beach.
Thinking back, I was only ever half-aware of these changes. Walking past the piles of building rubble and fenced off areas, my mind was busy contemplating other things, namely, the injustice of being forced to spend my weekends and summer holidays working in the kiosk. Prior to the redesign of the pavilion, the kiosk consisted of a single long counter that looked directly onto the beach. At one end were the fridges containing cans of soft drink. At the other end were the fryers used to cook an assortment of hot foods such as chips, fish pieces, potato scallops, Pluto Pups, Vienna Steaks, Chiko Rolls, fish cakes, dim sims, and donuts. In between were the chocolate bars, packets of chewing gum, Lifesavers, cigarettes, the freezers containing ice-blocks and ice-creams, the milkshake machines, packets of potato crisps, women’s sanitary products, surfboard wax, fly repellent, and bottles of sun tan lotion. As long as a product did not require lengthy preparation and there was some evidence of demand, my father was happy to add it to his stock. A year or two after he bought the lease, he installed two pinball machines. The racket of the metal ball bouncing off the bumpers and the clicking of the points tally blended with the background noise of customer orders as we traipsed back and forth along the counter.
On weekends and during the summer school holidays, the rows of customers would be four or five deep. As well as family members, my father employed one or two others, often friends of the family, to work in the shop. He would open the kiosk at seven-thirty in the morning and close late in the evening. I remember long stretches of days when my parents would return home at night smelling of the fat from the fryers, looking completely exhausted. The first thing that my father wanted to know was the weather forecast for the following day. He knew that, if the weather changed, a lot of the food that he had prepared would go to waste. For my sisters and I, another warm day simply meant another day working at the shop. We would watch the weather report hoping for some indication of an approaching cold front or chance of rain. Nothing could make us happier than waking in the morning to the sound of rain. The first indication of a southerly wind change that would drop the temperature by four or five degrees and clear the beach of patrons was also celebrated as an opportunity to escape. Working at cross-purposes thus became an essential part of how the shop functioned.
The point I want to make is that the kiosk was something other than just a business that kept my family clothed and fed. It was also a place where a new phase in my life began, one that required me to be much more conscious of the demands of the adult world. Indeed, if I was to enlarge the photograph of Pacific Park, there is a good chance that among the group of people seated on the bench in front of the bus stop I would be able to identify a twelve or thirteen-year-old boy impatiently waiting for the bus to take him home. From the expression on the boy’s face I would be able to read feelings of both relief and guilt: relief in that he was no longer traipsing up and down the counter serving customers; guilt in that, by heading home, he has left his parents in the lurch. This combination of competing emotions stays with the boy throughout his time at the bus stop and during the journey home, along Hunter Street, past Broadmeadow, and right up to his stop, in front of the Sunnyside Hotel. Even when he is slumped on the couch, watching God-knows-what TV program, his mind is clouded by these competing feelings. It’s only later when the long summer evening has finally drawn to a close and the last of the remaining patrons have left the beach that these feelings begin to dissipate, replaced by the trepidation of wondering what the expressions on his parents’ faces would reveal about the extent of their exhaustion.
Waiting at the bus stop, my greatest wish was to be elsewhere. When we first took over the kiosk, this meant being able to roam the streets with my friends. By the time I was fifteen, the wish to be elsewhere became entangled with the awkward feelings and transformations of adolescence. The kiosk made these feelings and transformations too public. As I grew older, I came to associate the empty lots and boarded up buildings that surrounded Pacific Park with a broader malaise that was an undeniable part of the city at the time – the loss of its industries, high levels of unemployment, and lingering bigotries. My experience of these matters was through my day-to-day interactions with the people whose lives overlapped with mine in the kiosk. Not the suntanned families on the other side of the counter, but the council cleaners that arrived each morning to hose down the pavilion; the rival shop keepers that we turned to when the kiosk ran out of change, on the understanding that we would do the same for them; the delivery men who gingerly backed their trucks down the narrow ramp leading to the pavilion rather than have to lug the crates of soft drinks down the steep stairs; the wheelchair-bound patients from the nearby hospital, each one of whom, according to my adolescent imagination, was suffering from some terminal disease; the hunched-over old Cypriot couple that came to the beach late in the evenings, talked to my parents loudly in Greek and tried to make themselves useful by sweeping the area in front of the counter; even the local hoodlums, who were in the year above me at high school, but now spent their time inventing ever-more ingenious ways to swipe the boxes of cigarettes from my father’s storeroom. Most of the time, we got along. But in the end, it was these people, their routines and peculiarities, that I wanted gone, knowing full well that the only way for this to occur was for me to disappear.
Of course, such acts of disappearance take time and, even if it doesn’t seem like it, an element of planning. After finishing high school, I had a hazy understanding that attending university would offer a chance to study the subjects that interested me, primarily, English, but also ancient history. My time at Newcastle University brought me into contact with an array of individuals from backgrounds vastly different from my own. By all the available evidence, these people were not only much smarter than I was, but also much better at understanding what was expected of them by their lecturers and tutors. Where I was prone to misjudge requirements and procedures, they were able to navigate these processes – as if it was second nature. My failings did not stem from a lack of effort. It was simply that I had no model to call on that could show me how to turn this effort into academic success.
The real benefit that I drew from attending university was the time and opportunity to cultivate a range of interests that compensated for the lack of academic success – music, films, experimenting with various drugs, hastily arranged trips to Sydney to watch overseas bands . . . and also photography. This involved not only taking pictures, but also learning how to develop the black and white negatives and make prints. This interest coincided with my first, short-lived, attempt to move out of home. I wish I could remember the circumstances that surrounded this event and how it was explained it to my parents. But like so many other things at the time, it was something that I did with very little thought of its impact on others.
Along with the meagre rent, the main attraction of the dilapidated Federation-era house that I shared with three others was the size of the high-ceilinged bedrooms that were perfectly suited to playing around with light and texture and staging moody portraits. These photographs helped us to imprint our identities onto a city that we viewed as alternately hostile and accommodating. It was around this time that I also began to take photographs of my family. The ordinariness of these pictures reveals a desire to document something that, for the first time in my life, I was able to look at from a distance: my mother hanging out the washing; her, again, sitting at the sewing machine, adjusting a hemline; my father playing backgammon with a friend; him, again, reading the newspaper. There are also photographs of my sisters and I working at the kiosk. I say working. But what we are actually doing is reconstructing poses that belonged to a period of our lives that was not quite finished.
The photograph that comes to mind was taken by my younger sister on a cool Autumn day when, apart from my parents, just the two of us were working in the kiosk. It shows me at the far end of the counter leaning on the freezer with my head cupped in my hands. The short haircut is of the time. So too is the exaggerated expression of boredom. The punchline is drawn from the juxtaposition of my expression in the bottom third of the picture and the hand-painted advertisement directly above, that shows a Pluto Pup covered in tomato sauce and a single cone of vanilla ice cream. Between these two objects is a three-word exhortation that requires the reader to fill in the missing noun: ‘Try our Delicious.’
Three words strung together without concern for grammatical requirements. But for my sister and I they were an irresistible opportunity. There was nothing malicious in our antics. We were simply using the occasion of the photograph to distance ourselves from life in the kiosk. Distancing and rejecting are different things. But such distinctions were beyond my capacity to articulate—at least in a manner that might have reassured my parents. By this point, they had become accustomed to seeing us behave in this way. ‘Paráxenia Paidia’ (‘Strange children’), my mother would often say in response to our disparagement of some cultural protocol or refusal to mix with other Greek children. She didn’t say this with bitterness. It was just another thing that she came to accept about the life that my father and her had created in Australia.
By the end of second year at university, my interest in the courses that I was studying had waned to the point where I was ready to abandon the degree. Too much was happening outside of university for me to be able to focus on developing the skills required to improve my marks. Around this time, a number of friends who were on the fringes of university life had moved to Sydney. When I discovered that I could complete the final year of my degree at a different university, I decided to join them. The only person in my family that I discussed this with was my mother. I don’t think we discussed anything. I presented her with a heavily doctored account of my motives and intentions. She dismissed this account out of hand. I had only recently moved back home. For her, moving to Sydney was evidence of my determination to turn my back on the home that she had worked so hard to create. Strange children.
The range of experiences that followed meant that I spent little time thinking about Newcastle or what was happening at the shop. But even before I left, I knew that the nature of the business had changed and that the crowds that once frequented Newcastle Beach had relocated elsewhere. The redesign of Pacific Park coincided with the long-delayed start of the rebuilding of the beach pavilion that had been severely damaged by the terrible storm that hit Newcastle in May of 1974. The combination of the building works and road closures meant that parking was much easier to find at nearby Bar Beach or Dixon Park. The upside of this loss of trade was that I didn’t need to worry about my parents’ workload. My father must have been in his early fifties at this point. My mother a few years younger. Each day, they turned up to the kiosk, keeping the business going, while, all around them, the bulldozers and earth moving equipment were bringing the redesign of Pacific Park to completion. If reaching fifty meant something to them, I couldn’t say. My life and their life seemed to be proceeding along very different lines. As long as they remained in reasonable health, I could get on with the business of finding my own way in the world. The matter of their happiness – or grief – was beside the point.
In writing an account of these years, it’s important to avoid giving the impression of a definitive break. This was a time when almost nothing was definitive. Each move away from home and the emotional security of my family was matched by a move back. Things that seemed so important one day were liable to be cast aside the next. This was a time when a chance encounter with a friend or a former housemate could have as much influence on my plans as any carefully considered goal. To put it plainly, I was riding my luck, convinced that, eventually, things would turn out for the best. Even if they didn’t, there would still be enough time to set things right. This belief says a lot about the kind of person I was at the time as well as the unspoken support provided by my family. Our lives were proceeding along very different lines. But what was never relinquished was my mother’s belief that, regardless of my strange behavior, she had the right to insist that, just as she made herself available to me, I needed to make myself available to her.
It’s not surprising, then, that, after completing the subjects necessary to qualify for my degree, I moved back to Newcastle. My goal was to save enough money to travel overseas. This was the time in Newcastle that I remember most fondly, working alongside my parents in the kiosk, staying back to help my father to clean the counter and wipe down the freezers and soft serve machines in preparation for the next day, each week getting a little closer to my goal. When I could, I’d catch the train to Sydney and stay with my Australian girlfriend. Sometimes she would come to Newcastle. If I was lucky, my parents would let us stay in the same room. I remember being touched when my mother found a quiet moment one morning to tell me that my father thought that this wasn’t right. ‘It’s not fair for her family’, she said.
Did he really think this – or was she putting words into his mouth? As with nearly everything about my father’s thoughts and feelings, I had to take her word for it.
I was overseas for just under a year, travelling across Europe, spending time in Cyprus with my grandparents and living with friends in London. When I returned to Australia at the start of 1984, I moved back to Sydney. By this stage my father was considering selling the lease to the kiosk. The strain of working two jobs – the shop during the day and as a cleaner at Newcastle Railway Station at night – had taken a toll on his health. After he sold the lease, my parents returned to Cyprus for an extended holiday. It was during this time that my mother’s dream of returning to Cyprus permanently came closest to fruition. Everything hinged on her ability to line up suitable husbands for my sisters. If they remained in Cyprus it would make sense for the rest of us to also remain. She had seen how this unfolded with other families, and, with a little luck, it might also happen to us.
Unfortunately for her, this proved to be just a pipedream. Having spent nearly their whole lives in Australia, my sisters found the realities of Cypriot life too difficult to align with their hopes and expectations for the future. Thus, when my parents did eventually leave Newcastle it was not for Cyprus. Instead, they followed their children to Sydney. They bought the lease on a takeaway in Bankstown and rented an apartment nearby. After a year, it became clear that the business wasn’t viable. Luckily, they managed to unload the lease before it had a catastrophic effect on their finances. They came close to buying a number of other food businesses in Sydney, without ever going through with the purchase. In the end, they settled on a small fish and chip shop, just on the Sydney side of the Swansea bridge. There was no four-foot-high Pluto Pup or vanilla ice cream cone, just a brightly coloured sign on the shop’s front window: ‘Jim and Pat’s Fish ’n’ Chips!’ They held onto this business for eleven years, working the same seven-days-a-week schedule that they did at the kiosk. During this time, my sisters and I married and, soon after, started families of our own. It was around this point that my life and the lives of my parents became more intertwined. Although she still lived in Newcastle, every fortnight, my mother would drive to Sydney to help with childcare. In turn, we tried to get to Newcastle as much as possible.
Reading over my account of some of the things that happened after we sold the kiosk, I’m conscious of having jumped over major milestones. Leaving home for good, getting a job, meeting my partner, getting married, starting a family . . . All these events have blended into one undifferentiated period that could be termed my mature adulthood, a period that has none of the clarity of the earlier period, when the routines of life in the kiosk seemed to hold things together.
The thing that I remember most clearly from the time when my parents had the shop in Swansea are the rituals that managed to bind the different parts of my life. Simple matters like stopping at the shop on our way into Newcastle, and sitting down at one of the tables with my parents to share a meal. I remember the smell of the tomato sauce that would leave a trail across the side of my daughter’s face and the joy that this sight brought to my parents. After finishing the meal, we would continue the journey into Newcastle and wait at my parents’ house until they closed the shop. Once I had unpacked the car and set up my daughter’s cot in one of the bedrooms, I would wander around the house, with no real purpose, opening drawers and pulling things out of the book shelves, never failing to be surprised at what, of all the paraphernalia of our childhood, my mother had decided to keep. I would do this with one eye on the clock. As the early evening passed into night, increasingly, my thoughts would be about the shop in Swansea. Was it just my parents working – or did they have someone to help them with the evening rush?
Increasingly, I’d find myself recalling earlier evenings in Newcastle when I had manufactured an excuse to escape from the kiosk and was waiting at home for them to return. Looking at the awkward high school photographs that my mother had framed and placed on her sideboard, I’d remember the feelings of relief and guilt and how much I wanted to escape the routines that governed my life working in the kiosk. This had happened. But as I waited for my parents to return, I knew that a part of who I was as a person, perhaps even a fundamental part, now as well as then, was waiting at the bus stop at Pacific Park, unsure of whether to head back to the kiosk or to press on with the escape, regardless.
Since my parents sold the shop in Swansea and moved back to Sydney, I visit Newcastle less and less. Usually it’s for a wedding or the funeral of a relative or family friend. On these occasions, I stay somewhere that is in walking distance to Pacific Park. The area near the park is now dominated by boutique apartments and cafés that, on weekends, are full of people crammed together, enjoying the views to the beach. Everything about the location and the people that I pass on my walks confirms that the memories that I associate with this place belong to another time. The proper thing to do is to consign these memories to the past. What stops me from doing this is more complicated than nostalgia. It is to do with the intensity that characterizes those periods in our lives when something changes, irrevocably. When we move from one set of determining conditions and expectations to something very different. The trip back is about the afterlife of what was left behind – as well as the echo of messages that went unheeded at the time.
Near the end of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, the Emperor Khan tells Marco Polo of the futility of realizing that, for all the magnificence of the cities spread across his vast empire, the final landing place of the traveler ‘can only be the infernal city’. Polo encourages the Emperor to see the inferno not as what lies ahead, but as what is already all around us, ‘the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together’. He then outlines two ways in which a person might escape the inferno’s suffering: ‘The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.’
I began this story believing that it would be about a particular place. I realise that it changed into a story about the people who brought me to this place. It doesn’t take much to see that these are two parts of the one story, a story about the memories triggered by the photograph of Pacific Park. The shape and model of the buses that approach the terminus, the pose of the male commuter caught mid-stride as he walks purposively toward the door of the first bus, the rear entrances of the rundown terrace houses across the street from the terminus that look out onto empty lots made dusty and uneven by the rubble of what has been demolished, the darkened windows of the derelict Esplanade Hotel. These details show me the world of my past, at its most particular. But they also remind me of everything that was lost or abandoned in the striving.
This, too, is part of the photograph of Pacific Park, the part that is connected to the memory that I have of the people that inhabited this area of Newcastle, their resentments, habits, and struggles. Most of all, it is that part of the photograph that speaks to me of my parents’ labour, their traipsing up and down the counter, day-in and day-out, and the toll that this took on their bodies and outlooks. They never made it big. But they did make certain things possible that weren’t possible before: education, social mobility, as well as a type of distance whereby a child of theirs could look at the world in which he was immersed, its possibilities and choices, and obtain a degree of comfort in willing it all to disappear. Recollection and oblivion. Home and the loss of home. Pacific Park is where these forces run together. But it is also the sound generated by two words, whispered, one after the other – Pacific Park, Pacific Park. Like the jingle of a desk clerk’s bell, it awakens me to where I’ve come from as well as to where I might be heading.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver (London: Vintage Books, 1997)
Antigone Kefala, Summer Visit: Three Novellas (Sydney: Giramondo Publishing, 2002)
Bruce Mackenzie, Design With Landscape (Sydney: Bruce Mackenzie Design, 2011)