I’ve lived all my sixty-four years in Sydney, come this October, 2012, Common Era.
When you’ve lived in our city as long as I have, passed through so much of its history, and so many of its defining experiences, it’s hard to travel anywhere within it without reliving your personal part in its history.
If I walk, for example, from Glebe down Broadway to Railway Square, I float on a wave of memory.
Twice, in 1970 I marched down Broadway from the University of Sydney with the Vietnam Moritorium. The first march, in May, was huge. A friend and I were carrying an upside down Australian flag (the universal distress signal) on which I’d painted a hand giving the peace sign. I remember somebody had acquired one of those big road signs that read “Stop. Go back. You are going the wrong way”. It was at the front of the march as it left the university, swung onto the road, and swept aside the tiny handful of coppers that attempted to stop it.
Or maybe, that was the second march, the smaller September one. That one turned quite violent. Two hundred people were arrested and I saw a police car trashed at Railway Square.
Memory can be a tricky thing because, after a few years, the mind can merge two incidents into a better story, but some memories are fixed absolutely in time. Everyone of my generation remembers where they were when they heard John F Kennedy had been shot or that Gough Whitlam had been dismissed.
At the bottom of the hill on the corner of Buckland Street there was a second hand car dealership. In the early 70s I worked in the upper storey of the small building at the rear (last time I looked it was a backpackers’hostel). I was then a sort of organiser for the Socialist Labour League and my main job was printing leaflets and laying out the group’s newspaper. It was on the steps leading from Buckland Street up to our office that I heard Kerr had dismissed Whitlam.
And it was from a window of the office that I witnessed a terrible cloudburst that overwhelmed the stormwater drains and flooded the dip in Broadway so deeply that the car dealer’s stock floated across the yard and parked cars floated onto the street.
Further up Broadway, at the grim old Fairfax building (now part of UTS), I once sold Workers News at a picket line and jeered at Derryn Hinch scabbing on the loading dock. The place is a student cafeteria now.
In my years I’ve been a Fine Arts student, a silversmith, a lift fitters assistant, a Trotskyist organiser, and a full time taxi driver (and secretary of the taxi section of the TWU).
I went on to become a sort of glorified tour guide for the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the old Quarantine Station on North Head, a real park ranger (briefly, at Captain Cook’s Landing Place), and an operations officer, illustrator, writer, editor and desktop publisher for the NPWS. I’ve fought bushfires, and acted as spokesperson for the NPWS at some major fire emergencies (including the notorious 1994 fires) and at big whale strandings. I also spent a couple of fraught years as the Chief Guide at the Australian Museum – a position that, happily, no longer exists – where I got to know some of the major figures in Australian natural history and acquired a wonderful brown rat who, in his brief appointed span, shook paws with David Bowie, Ray Martin, and John Dengate.
And I took part in Sydney’s longest-running environmental battle: the fight to save the Wolli Creek bushland from the threat of an eight lane M5 motorway. And the fight for the Airport Rail Line and the light rail extension to Dulwich Hill. And I’ve been accused, in the Industrial Court, of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and dragged to the High Court of Australia by the evil Macquarie Bank (won that one seven nil).
It’s been a hell of a journey, and every fortnight, I’d like to share it with you. I hope somehow my stories will help, or at least, give you a laugh.
By Gavin Gatenby