Thursday, 18 April 2019

A day trip to Wollongong

There was a quantity of quiet drama on this day when I took a train trip to this city south of Sydney. A highlight was seeing ‘California’ optimistically rendered on the façade of a tiny red-brick block of residential units, but more on that later …

Just after nine o’clock in the morning I left home and went to the light rail station and caught the train to Central Station. I had checked the times for the Wollongong service earlier and knew that it left at 10.10am so I checked the big noticeboard installed in the Grand Concourse and then went to the platform and sat down on a seat to wait. On my right was a young man with a number of bags at his feet, including a sleeping bag in an orange sack. A bit later, an elderly man sat down on my left. He talked occasionally with a woman who remained standing. When the train arrived I got on and took a seat on the lower deck.

When the train leaves Sydney proper, just after Sutherland, the bush closes in and you are for a long time surrounded by trees, ferns, and rugged slopes. From time to time a bridge takes you across a ravine and then you are in a tunnel. On the way down I was sitting on the western side of the train, and on the way back I was on the eastern side of the train. On the way back the setting sun shone through different windows depending on the direction the train was heading in: north or south or east or west. The tracks for a long while snake up – or down – the escarpment that leads from the Royal National Park to the seaside strip where the city that was my destination rests in splendid isolation.

When the train arrived at my stop my friend was waiting on the platform and I greeted him with a handshake then used the toilet; it had been a long ride. We walked along the street until we came to a new-looking shopping centre. He took me down some stairs and inside there were colanders affixed to the ceiling. The columns supporting the structure were encased with rolling pins. We went to a member’s club that has a poppy on its façade representing lives lost in war. He had me sign in with my drivers’ licence. I ordered a Toohey’s New and my friend ordered a glass of shiraz.

We sat down at our table. It had been 13 years since we had last met. Before that, we had known each other in the years I was an undergraduate at university, at a time in the 80s when I lived in Glebe. Neil had been involved with a literary magazine and I had also become involved. It was an exciting time, with editorial meetings held on the second floor of a bookstore on Glebe Point Road and young people from all over the metropolis belonging to a kind of collegiate society.

We moved to the dining area for lunch and ate corned silverside. The meat came with a white sauce, roast potatoes, roast pumpkin, and steamed vegetables. I had another New and my friend had another shiraz.

After companionably talking our way through our repast we went to the city art gallery, which was almost deserted except for a group of people seated on chairs near the entrance to hear a talk. The building’s foundation stone had been laid in 1954 and the façade has the – for that epoch – anachronistic stripped classical style that you see in some buildings in the nation’s capital that date from the 20s.

The staffer at the front desk asked us to subdue our voices so that the visitors assembled nearby could enjoy their event, and my friend and I retired to a room off the entrance hall where hung prints from the Northern Territory that had been made by Aboriginal people. They were in many different styles, including the customary abstract type of work with its distinctive cross-hatching. After looking around this room we went into an adjacent room and then headed upstairs to see other exhibits. One room here was filled with monochrome works dating mainly from the 1970s. The abstract style and indeterminate content of these works was complemented by a number of brightly-coloured screen prints from the mid-80s that had been made to promote social inclusion such as subsidised housing.

When we had regained the pavement outside, we ducked into a club where Neil filled out a sheet of paper for a football tipping competition. We walked east and crossed a surprisingly busy, narrow road near a football stadium. With some amusement we took in the crumbling façade of the ‘California’ unit block with its curved Art Deco balconies, Neil bringing the edifice to my attention with a droll verbal flourish. Fittingly, across the road stood a block of state-owned units that had been named ‘John Curtin’ in honour of a former Labor prime minister, and later painted a suitably dull grey colour.

We went into a pub near the water where they brew their own beer and ordered glasses of a local IPA that to my mind had a flavour like strawberries. We took our seats and continued our conversation facing the Norfolk Island pines and the sea. Later we caught a bus and I got off at the train station. My friend continued on it in the direction of his home.

I used the toilet then boarded the train and sat in the carriage to wait for it to depart. A group of youngsters was carrying on in the next carriage and they migrated to the upper floor of mine. I was grateful to hear nothing more from them for the rest of the journey. Past North Wollongong, flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos occasionally abandoned the train tracks when they were frightened by the moving train, flapping their wings to gain altitude and avoid the engine. South of Coalcliff the train passed an abandoned industrial plant we had left behind us on the way down. As the train left Sutherland Station and the city vista opened up a large, pale moon appeared in the north-eastern sky above Botany Bay with its red vessel loading gantries. I got off at a platform at Central and waited at the front of the building for the light train to appear. Eventually I saw it coming up the hill toward the station, its headlights in the dusk shining like beacons.

Once home, I cut up two pork medallions, that I had defrosted a day or so before, and a fistful of spring onions that were still edible. I braised the pork with the greens and near the end of the process put in pepper and soy sauce, then put the lid back on the pan to make sure the meat cooked through. I had no rice to eat it with as I had not cooked any. It was tasty and I ate it all. Lunch had been very Australian, so dinner’s oriental inspiration made a contrast.

And I remembered the white flock – perhaps the seeds of a plant – that had suddenly drifted past the windows of the train carriage on our way down the mountain, suspended in air like a wish. Just floating in space like an idea without the words to express it. And the cockatoos …

Above: Unknown artist, 1840-1860. Illawarra landscape. This colonial-era painting shows the distinctive Australian eucalypts and the hilly precincts of Wollongong.

Above: This print is titled ‘Michael Long’ and is dated 2002. It was made by Marrnyula Mununjgur (born 1964). It was made in Arnhem Land and it shows an AFL game. The style is naïve.

Above: This work by Gary Shead is titled ‘Thirroul’ (a town the train I came south on passed through on the way to Wollongong). The print, which is dated 2002, shows DH Lawrence, the English author, standing in a street in the coastal town. He came to the region and wrote a mediocre novel about his impressions of Australia. To the right of the author and his wife, dressed in stuffy city attire, are three local lads, two of whom are not wearing shirts, and one of whom is wearing a singlet.

Above: This photograph is by Jean-Claud Gautrand and is untitled. It is from the artist’s ‘Vanishing Fortress’ series. It was made in 1974 and was a 1980 gift to the gallery from Patrick White, the novelist.

Above: This painting by Brisbane native Michael Zavros is dated 2001 and is titled ‘Very Very Important’. It is simply hilarious.

Above: A dodgy Art Deco apartment block named ‘California’ located near the Wollongong waterfront.


marcellous said...

Great post, though I'm not sure why you should be so dismissive of Kangaroo and "California."

Matthew da Silva said...

The novel seems to have been punched out in a hurry and I'm not sure how well Lawrence really understood his subject. It has been a while since I opened it and when that happened I never finished it. I seem to remember a rather unsavoury description of a Chinese person in the book.

Neil said...

On "Kangaroo" see my 2012 post “…the most truthful and disturbing image one can find of Australia in literature.”–Simon Leys

Matthew da Silva said...

I find Miles Franklin much more adept at describing the Australia pre-war (ie before WWII). Her 'Old Blastus of Bandicoot' is a masterpiece in the old 19th century mould. Great characterisation and an engaging plot. Lawrence's book is, in my view, undercooked.