Essay: Gail Joneson Glebe

Turnings and Over-turnings in Glebe

Glebe by flickr user Kate Ausburn
View to the city from Glebe. Photo: Kate Ausburn


It often rains in Glebe. The suburb is surely wetter than any other, a soaked spongy place, subtropical and ever-damp, populated by giant, bombastic foliage. The blue shade of fig trees is a memory of water. In the gorgeously named Arcadia Road, banked by twenty Hills Weeping Figs, the downcast ripple of shadow can only be called subaquatic.

Fig trees with black-sheened leaves, shade one could swim in: this was my first impression when I arrived from the desiccated West. This, and the leaking and flooding of my crumbling one bedroom terrace, which reminded me of inclines and flows and the worry of living valley-side during summer rains. I’ve learned since that most of the figs are Moreton Bays or Port Jacksons, and that there’s enough brightness and dry weather to go around. I know varieties of trees and have learned to discern their particularity. In Jubilee Park, near the old tram sheds, there are the three types of fig, but also Washington, American Cotton and Canary Date Palms, Camphor Laurels, Holm Oaks and Norfolk Island Pines, all planted some time in the 1880s. Elsewhere, the magnolias attract attention; their white scented flowers are the assertion of an old-fashioned aesthetic. I watch as they come into bloom and indicate a more delicate elsewhere. I scuff through fallen frangipani, and gather a few in my hat.

Yet with the obstinacy of an outsider, it is still the figs I rejoice in. At the end of Glebe Point Road, the artist Alan Giddy has lit two Moreton Bays. Powered by a small wind turbine, light-sensitive to the sky, the sunset colours are snapshot and converted to a light palette projected onto the trees. This simple installation is a local marvel. So there they are, pink fig trees, appearing surreal, efflorescent and massively domed, until after an hour or two they return to black in the rustling night.


The Reverend gentleman of the ‘Glebe’ was Richard Johnston, the first Christian cleric in the colony of New South Wales. He arrived on the First Fleet with his wife Mary in 1788, was given four hundred stolen acres, and stayed for twelve years. I know little about him but that he was the first man to grow oranges and lemons in Australia, carefully cultivated from pips derived from Rio di Janeiro. His glebe farm flourished and was considered for a time the finest in the colony. The ‘flogging parson’, Samuel Marsden, later worked with and succeeded him, but I like to think Reverend Johnston was a kinder soul, tending his citrus, teaching convict children, preaching for four years under the sky until he built his own church (which burnt to the ground five years later). The Gadigal people of the Eora nation must have witnessed the plantings, and perhaps, bewildered, tried the juicy fruit. Perhaps, in those early days, there was the possibility of sweetness in the colony. Or perhaps by then the population of that area was so diminished by smallpox that those who remained knew only a bitterer taste.

One public orange tree existed until a few years ago, when the council altered the park and overnight, it disappeared. It was certainly not planted by Johnston, but it was healthy and bountiful.  With a democratic instinct, locals could be seen visiting to take one or two pieces of fruit, leaving enough for others. In so doing they enacted a possible economy, an economy of sharing. By this modest action, contingent, communitarian, I imagine regard for tree-life as holding some of our deepest virtues.


Glebe encourages recognition of cycles and circles. There exists here a temple and an incinerator that looks like a temple. Both buildings seem to have arrived from another city, and stand remote, authoritative and magnificently singular. The incinerator, designed by Walter Burley Griffin, sits at the end of Forsyth Street on Blackwattle Bay, facing a prospect of the city centre and the roaring Anzac Bridge.  Before its construction in 1933, the garbage of Glebe was gathered here to be towed out to sea. But waste management became anthroposophical: the building was designed to suggest the connection of humanity to creation and de-creation, and to invoke Rudolph Steiner’s optimistic ‘four ethers’. The mysticism of rubbish is a kind of human unity. Don Delillo, in Underworld, calls it ‘mass metabolism’.

The building itself is architecturally odd – Art-Deco meets Frank Lloyd Wright meets Aztec civilisation – slabs of yellow-painted concrete, squat in a Mesoamerican way, with an abstracted version of a chimney tower. A sign reads Ancient temple or Waste Disposal Building? as if giving one a choice. It’s always empty and quiet, apparently awaiting the Gods. Along the Blackwattle paths before it, there are frolicsome dogs aplenty, bouncing and unleashed, and joggers heading with stern and wholesome intent along the curving tracks. Cyclists lean forward and stream, unzipping the air. So, there are other more material energies, and other anthroposophical turnings and re-turnings.

But China is here too. Tucked away, in Edward Street, is the Sze Yup Temple, built in 1898. I remember coming upon it for the first time with the surprise of a gawking child. It’s a red building, designed on a traditional Chinese model, with a courtyard, three halls and small scaled pitched roofs. The entrance is flanked by Shi, temple lions, jade green, male and female, each settled as if for eternity in their typically smug crouch. A resident black cat slides shyly between shadows, the dwarf offspring of the migrant lions, and clearly a Buddhist. This is a quiet, calm place; one can sit on the sunlit lawn and be left alone. One can meditate, read, or pretend to be Chinese. And unlike the Griffin temple, this is still a site of worship. There’s a gong, a drum, and embroidered images of Kwan Ti, to whom the temple is dedicated. There’s a central chapel and two smaller ones, the Chapel of Departed Friends and the Chapel of Good Fortune. Both seem equally favoured by worshippers, who stand beneath the light-wells and travel privately, in their own space-time.


Why is it that familiar places sometimes become melancholy? It took me a while to understand the H J Foley Rest Park, nestled at the corner of Glebe Point and Bridge roads. It appears conventionally park-like, with corpulent Moreton Bays, winding paths and well tended patches of sunny lawn, upon which pale European backpackers gleefully fling and expose themselves. In the centre of the park is a brick box, surmounted by a natty red-tiled roof. On the sides of this box are large wheel-shapes fashioned in brass. This structure is a wireless, gifted during the Depression in 1934 to the poor of Glebe for their entertainment. Now it’s a wireless internet hotspot, so citizens still enjoy lounging in the company of invisible voices and airy messages from afar. HJ Foley was a doctor and a wily politician: he ministered for free to those who could not afford his services in return for the pledge of their council vote. Now at least the notion of things-for-free still vaguely remains.

I move often through this park, heading to the bus-stop and main road. Once, out of the blue, I recalled a line from Baudelaire’s ‘Le Crépuscule du Matin’: The air is full of the shudders of things that flee and suddenly paused, unsure why this fragment had been summoned. I may have been thinking ‘wireless’, or imagining dissolving sounds. At the edge of the park, in shadow, stands a first world war memorial dating from 1921; and at that moment it resembled the mausoleums of the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris: I’d never made the connection before. The memorial is in the form of a shrine with an interior chamber listing the names of 174 men from Glebe who died in the war. Before the chamber was meanly closed off with a metal wire door, a homeless woman often slept here, or left her meagre possessions. There’s a cupola and orb, and marble busts of an angel, a sailor and a soldier. The angel, like Superwoman, has a star on her forehead. She’s static, gravely sad and holding an open book.

The very substantiality of the memorial is somehow troubling. I often wonder where the evicted woman now sleeps. I wonder about shelter and radiating signs and what after all remains hidden. Walking the same paths tends to simplify: we metaphorically somnambulate; we think we know our way and what it is that signifies. Then there’s a single floating sentence, foreign, dislocated, fallen from who-knows-where, and everything changes.


On the walk around Rozelle and Blackwattle Bays there’s often a wild breeze lifting from the ruffled water. It feels energised and supernatural. This wind tangles hair and buffets and billows one’s thoughts. Wavelets uprise. There’s fine spray and a briny stink. In the early evening the high-pitched racket of Noisy Miners is a screeching soundtrack. Ahead, lies the still-working port of Glebe. There sits machinery and cranes and glimpses of muscled labour.  Across the water stands the monolith of the White Bay Power Station, the columns of the Glebe Island silos, and the island itself, once the site of a notoriously stinking abattoir. The port now hosts a super-yachts’ marina; boats of astonishing cost nuzzle at the grubbier world, lined in their gleaming, supercilious huddle. Each time it seems to offer the same contradiction: a sensation of instability, blown thinking and ragged noise co-exist, counterintuitively, with a scene of industrial stability.

Blackwattle Bay was once mostly timber-drying warehouses and boatbuilding yards. Constructions from the twenties – warehouses, boatsheds – later accommodated artists and crafts-workers in studios until their demolition in 2000, to make way for luxury residences which boast the structure of ship’s containers. Erasure of heritage is the disregard of old forms of loveliness. It is submission to money, to a blended modernity. What is dismantled in this crass refashioning? There remains a single lonely boatshed, now a restaurant. There is a rusty winch that pulled in old steamers for recycling and a crane which removed the engines; both rest, token remainders, at the edge of the waterfront. Their odd vulgarity in this context is reassuring. They are visually anomalous and appear as stranded, disconnected objects. But these are also the betokening of what is gone forever. Irrespective of epoch, one wants safeguarded places.

Yet there’s a delightful fizz here, notwithstanding. The fizz of the wind and the miners and the optical illusions of streaming light, especially at rosy sunset. The bulging figs. The swelling water. The sight of dragon boats and kayaks and straining tough rowers. I was happily surprised to see mangroves and oysters clinging to the shore under a boardwalk. For ages I thought this a genuine remnant, even pre-colonial, until I discovered they’d been planted there by the university for the purposes of study. Like the concreted channel that was once Johnston’s Creek, there’s a sense of mistake, of things remade, or temporally out of joint. But the consolation is sensuous; it’s of the walk, and the water, and the boundless made visible. In a city so large, there’s something beguiling about the persisting experience of wind, birdsong, and movement, of the watery light in shifting combinations. The fluctuant world, even here. Especially here. These correspond to a human need to be gently (metaphysically) blown open.


You see it from the sky, from the left side of an airplane, coming in to land – the jagged lines of Rozelle and Blackwater bays, and the three bridges, Glebe Island, Anzac Bridge, and beyond that, the Harbour Bridge. Three bridges in a sequence, all shining as the plane descends. On earth, I gather pedantically my own estimation: Glebe (1903) is an electrical swing bridge, constructed to serve the needs of the abattoir. Few swing bridges now remain; it’s touchingly anachronistic, but also useless and mostly forgotten, reduced to sculptural value. The Anzac Bridge (1995) is the busy one, and its traffic roar is weirdly and invasively amplified. From a distance, the stylised configuration of its pylons and cables suggest the illusion of two disappearing pyramids. The sombre statue of an Australian soldier was added as a decoration in 2000, then it took eight further years before someone remembered to include the New Zealander. On my air and pedestrian travels I see these bridges line up, monumentally, in a series of emblems of connection. I walk daily down Bridge Road. It’s one of my roads. And it’s impossible here not to think of crossings and criss-crossings, of the omnipresence within, underneath, or somewhere over there, of bodies of water.

Heading towards the Fish Markets there’s Dorothy Hewett’s version of Centrepoint Tower, which ‘cobwebs’ the city sky. This metaphor also speaks of tricksy and illusionist cables; somehow it fits with the webs of the Anzac Bridge. Any place of light and water tends to dematerialise its prospects, but at ground level there’s something else; there’s a rematerialisation. Following Bridge Road one approaches the Markets, formerly a paper-mill warehouse, by passing the conspicuously industrial site of an old cement plant. You’ll see corrugated iron, gravel, the mess and muck of making concrete, the revolving drums of fat trucks, heavily laden, which come and go from the small entrance gates like worker bees. The plant has been there for forty years or so and each year, I’m told, there are new rumours that it will move, that labour and ordinary work will be dispatched with, and hidden by apartments.

Across the road, there’s another bridge, the viaduct of Wentworth Park, now supporting the sleek trains of the urban light rail. Beneath the red brick archways a tent-city has surreptitiously established. The urban homeless are camping here. There is nervous washing on lines, a rescued lounge chair or two, and flimsy polystyrene tents of unusually bright colours. Someone’s blue bucket has tipped and is rocking in the breeze. As the light rail slides above, as seagulls lunge at flinching diners eating on the boardwalks of the Fish Market, I wonder what this community see, and think about. I wave and an old bloke hesitates, then with great vigour waves back. He shouts, ‘Fucking beautiful day!’ in a cigarette-grated voice, then waves again, and once again, with what seems implausible vigour. Social distance permits a ruthless disregard. But I won’t walk closer, shy now and made self-conscious, for fear of treading into what might, after all, be a living room.


There’s an odd waterless fountain at the city end of Glebe Point Road. It consists of a sandstone column surmounted by a bronze coach light and was erected in 1904 to celebrate the Jubilee of the suburb in 1859. Near this fountain is a plaque:


Not only a Great Australian, but one of Nature’s Greatest. Indisputably Great. The plaque for the splendid Mr Sands piqued my curiosity. A Dhunghutti man, he was born in 1926, at the Burnt Bridge Aboriginal Mission, near Kempsey.  (Burnt Bridge!) The fifth of eight children and one of six boxing brothers, like Les Darcy, he became a middleweight champion, though in line with the racism of the time, fought as a Puerto Rican. When in Sydney he stayed in the former University Hotel (before which the fountain stands) and trained in Laming’s Golden Gloves gym, upstairs from the second-hand shop, The Dealatorium, at 49 Glebe Point Road, now the site of a bookshop, Gleebooks. Crowds were attracted by his fame to watch him running in circles around Victoria Park.

A handsome man, Dave Sands wore green satin boxing shorts, decorated with a large white star. Preparing for a bout with Sugar Ray Robinson, he took timber-cutting work in Dungog with one of his brothers. He died when the truck he was driving failed to take a bend and overturned. He was twenty-six years old. A striking photograph of the upturned truck, its cabin entirely crushed, was printed in the newspapers, as was one of his funeral. Thousands, mostly men, stand under umbrellas, looking gloomy.

At the entrance to Gleebooks, there’s a pair of golden boxing gloves set into the pavement: the gloves of the doubly Great boxer, Dave Sands. Sometimes when I enter I recall a postcard of Sands standing in his tense boxer’s pose, ready to strike but somehow benign, and full of life. Twenty six years. A loving father of four, and a contender. Sometimes too, I think of the vague grainy image of the smashed truck, and of the offense of displaying it as his mechanical coffin. Or I think of the surrealist predilection for lost gloves as icons of city life, a found glory and a terror, since objects that copy the body, ironic vestiges, imply both the conditions of art and of emptiness. They’re boxing mitts, true, but still in the crude shape of hands.


Since I did not grow up here, and arrived knowing no-one, Glebe was both without memory and emphatically real. The new resident seeks not only the stories of a place, but also its genii loci and forms of unconcealment. Something small becomes the proclamation of larger matters, and historical consciousness prompts random and puzzled affections. There’s a passageway here that reminds me of John Berger’s notion of ‘the shape of a pocket’. For Berger this term refers to hidden-away communities and small spaces of cultural resistance, but it also to the effects of painting in its ritual role as affirmation.

Along Elsie Walk, which borders the Glebe Primary School, there’s an exuberant mural painted on the side of a house by Liz Rooney with the assistance of (Aunty) Kath Dodd Farrawell. The mural honours the establishment of ‘Elsie’ in 1974, when a small group of feisty women seized two vacant houses in Westmoreland Street and converted them into a women’s refuge. At each end of the wall are the black and white silhouettes of sheltered mothers and children. In the centre, radically simple, is a brilliantly coloured fantasy space, mostly cerulean blue sky, that features grass, water, a distant shore and a rainbow of hope. After the artist died her image was painted into the mural, kneeling as if still in the act of painting, and children from the school added their child-like flowers. Tucked away as it is, this might seem a minor vision. But it’s a bright surprise and an artifact wholly of the community. It references solidarity and the sharing of space. That the best view is from the primary school seems entirely appropriate. Against the monumentalism of bridges and the tales of great houses (of which this suburb has many), these pocket-shaped reminders, modest, sweet, flagrant in contrast, carry the story of other needs and the assertion of collective feeling. Berger thought wall paintings essentially a life-enthusiasm, and an address to the future. I side-track here often, returning from the markets or the bookshop, to pass with a nod of recognition, and to be reminded.


After I discovered that the coffee shop called Badde Manors (which I’d privately called Bad-Pun Café) was once the Glebe Hotel, I sought other lost or persisting hotels and found they were legion, and with fabulous names. Apart from the Glebe and the University, the Currency Lass (1858) and the Waratah (1860s) were also on Glebe Point Road, facing off on the corners of Mitchell Street (where the good Reverend, years before, had his four hundred acres). Further up the same street remain The Toxteth (1850s) and the Ancient Briton (1855), now the AB, opposite the op-shop. The Australian Youth Hotel (also 1850s) was favoured by wharf and factory workers; The Kentish(1880s) was for cyclists; wool-packers drank at the The Imperial (1901) in Mitchell Street, and timber workers from Blackwattle Bay at the much later Kauri Foreshore Hotel (1922). For ‘larrikins of the lowest type’, there was Lady of the Lake (1880s) in Bay Street. There are still poetry nights at the Friend in Hand (1834). There was the Lilliebridge (1898) (later Harold Park Hotel), Excelsior (1870s) Forest Lodge (1860s,) Roxbury Hotel (1870s, later British Lion) and somewhere or other, the Bridge (New Native), the Glebe Tavern and May’s Family Hotel. My list is patchy as to dates and no doubt incomplete. What surprised me was the fun of compilation, to imagine what has been, and to think on what remains.

Sydney University, with its sidereal motto, was founded in 1850. For some reason, I have a vision of lecturers and students streaming for over a century up Glebe Point Road, and thence dispersing into these many pubs, for a talk and a beer. Though I spend little time in them, I’m rather fond of old hotels, their architecture, ambience and seedy friendliness. They all have the same yellow beer-coloured light, the same sour stink, and elderly man propping the front bar. The man bent barwards in The Toxteth, of particularly grizzled appearance and with an askew loose tie, has turned up elsewhere, and is certainly, Matrix-like, multiplied. (There he is, again). The human scale and enclosure complements the busy street outside. Named for ecclesiastical provenance, it must have been strange in the early days of the suburb to witness the flourishing pub culture. The young and restless now go to Newtown or Redfern, which have the requisite rowdy bands and edgy buzz; these are slower, more sleepy pubs, abashed by modernity, despite the TVs, LED lighting, and ardent advertisement. Sentimentally, the AB displays a plastic blow-up reindeer on its roof at Christmas time, and well into January. With affection, I watch it distort in the wind, crinkle, wobble and eventually deflate.


Suburbs suffer platitudes and condescension. They are known by received and dull representations. But the inner west seems to me to have retained novelty, and both historical and vagrant pleasures. Coffee shops and bookshops: this is what everyone knows. At the centre of a vigorous life of reading, talking and drinking are Gleebooks and Sapphos; readers and writers of all kinds cultivate their attachment to these places. I meet friends and students there; I too seek out books and the consolations and homecomings of pages. Then there are the bars and cafés, the nightlife of people strolling up and down Glebe Point Road. The Saturday markets in the school ground. The heave and the rumble of bus 431.The dead bats, like anarchist flags, pinned high onto powerlines. The scent of bread, and of coffee.

But writing this from afar, thinking now of my home, it’s the windblown foreshore I move to, the bluff luminosity, the liquid shade, the industrial relics, the walking paths that shape the body to the shape of the shore. Encounters there, human and otherwise, still unaccountably move me. Sometimes, it’s like being a child again, and bursting with feeling. The rudiments of earlier times, the pockets, the poetics, the way a place enters into you, settles there, and slowly gathers its bright meanings.


The Baudelaire translation is Aggeler’s. William Aggeler trans.  The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954) There are lots of others, of course, but I know this one.
John Berger “Painting and Time” in The Sense of Sight (Vintage 1985).
John Berger The Shape of a Pocket (Bloomsbury 2001).
Don DeLillo Underworld (Simon and Schuster 1997).
Dorothy Hewett ‘Winter in Sydney’ from Collected Poems 1940-1995 (Fremantle Press: 2003).
Max Solling Grandeur & Grit: A History of Glebe (Halstead Press, 2007).
Max Solling on Glebe pubs: ‘larrikins of the lowest type‘.
The Glebe Society website.
The Dictionary of Sydney.
Blackwattle Bay History

We are grateful to the City of Sydney for funding to commission and publish these essays.

'It often rains in Glebe. The suburb is surely wetter than any other, a soaked spongy place, subtropical and ever-damp, populated by giant, bombastic foliage.'