The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

(Kiama is on the land of the Dharawal people, more specifically the Wodi Wodi, a sub-group of the Dharawal. I acknowledge here the Dharawal and the Wodi Wodi as the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.)

Creature comforts

In next to no time at all I was transported, along with all my little dreams for the coming month, from circling the outskirts of Bath—walking over the green, damp grass there, observing the urban growth from the surrounding hills, admiring the crescents, the circuses, the caramel-coloured limestone and the prim, uniform austerity of the Georgian architecture—to doing more or less exactly the same thing around the fringes of Kiama, a town on the south coast of NSW; moving my body through the space to obtain a perspective, at some distance, on the situation of human building in the landscape.

Faced with the combination of this sudden shift in geography and climate, on the one hand, and the curious congruence in my own activity, on the other, I felt compelled to try and understand the two different places more precisely by thinking through contrasts between them.

The first thing to say about suburban, rural and central Kiama, is equally relevant to most of the east coast of NSW: it seems positively tropical. Perhaps I wouldn’t have said the same thing in January before I left, when everything, even on the usually luxuriant south coast, seemed in need of a good drink. Not so now. If England’s hills are a pleasant green, then Kiama’s are a manic emerald. The grass is thick and charged with a force that is subdued in the northern cool. It’s the right conditions for spontaneous generation. Nothing dries very easily, particularly a salty beach towel. The thick licks of remnant forest in patches around the otherwise thoroughly transformed rural and suburban landscape drip constantly and house bold, impossible to locate, birds that sound as though they are chasing you out of the landscape. Were I not so at home in such environs, I’d sympathise with the expression of repulsion and disgust in response to the vegetation in the first part of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, particularly the palm trees:

The same small breezes make the rotted palms along the condominium complex’s stone walls rustle and click, and a couple of fronds detach and spiral down, hitting the deck with a slap. All the plants out here are malevolent, heavy and sharp. The parts of the palms above the fronds are tuffed in sick stuff like coconut-hair. Roaches and other things live in the trees. Rats, maybe. Loathsome high-altitude critters of all kinds. All the plants either spiny or meaty. Cacti in queer tortured shapes. The tops of the palms like Rod Stewart’s hair, from days gone by.

To some extent I sympathise with the levels of apprehension and yet I am compelled to think of myself as a resident of such malevolence, an advocate for its fecund mess and thereby immune to the apparent hostility.

The second thing, which I’ve mentioned already, are the birds: Magpie, Butcher Bird, Wattle Bird and Willy Wagtail are most prominent, to my ear at least. The first two of these four are disgracefully good singers, the butcher bird in particular, which perches itself on the conspicuous electrical wires along the street in front of our dwelling and chortles with an unmatched prowess. There is nothing pretty about the song, like the vegetation: it’s lurid, immersive and bold, not something you could use on loop in a game of virtual golf. It’s foreground not background noise. Grippingly talented singers, the butcherbird and the magpie. In their company, I’m less likely to feel proud of my garden than ashamed at my voice. They are menacingly elegant.

The third thing, and the last of this list, which has been revealingly nature-focused: the sound of the insects, particularly what I presume to be crickets in the grass. The noise is a constant sonic mist. It makes me unreasonably happy, excited and relaxed at the same time. The sound of the crickets in the lawn, an audible night light. There seems to be two different sounds, overlaying each other: one is intermittent and more pronounced, the other continuous and soft. I listen to them in bed at night, emptying my mind, feeling safe.

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Forms of borders

The border between the rural and the urban isn’t as ragged in Bath, it’s a little more settled. Building at the fringes still goes on, of course, it just seems as though the landscape has already been subdued; there’s something less raw and more cohesively worked about how the urban and the rural are going to integrate. The vegetation in England seems more willingly shaped, more polite, easier to keep at bay. The suburban fringes in Kiama remind me of acne outbreaks during adolescence. There’s kind of rude, barely containable force to the so called natural world, whether it’s the impenetrable tongues of scrub that tumble down in gullies at the edges of the town, or in the sheer walls of wet rock into which roads and fields have been cut. You could never use the word ‘rolling’ to describe the topography, it’s too shifting and syncopated. Too jagged and uneven, too bold.

The apparent contrasts are made all the more strange by unexpended congruences, such as the Kiama drystone walls and the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) hedges that partially engulf them. These two ancient border technologies are largely absent from the other parts of rural and peri-urban Australia with which I am familiar, but quite common in the UK. The walls map out a significant portion of farmland around the Saddleback Mountain Road and Old Saddleback Road. They measure the progress of the town, which spreads continually outwards, making it seem as though the old walls are edging their way in. People have built letterboxes into parts of the wall, while in other places, the walls bear witness to the gradual emergence of town-like features, such as street signage, roundabouts, geraniums and the more closely spaced, newly built houses of suburbia.

Nearly all of the walls were built in the mid-19th century by a emigrant from Kent by the name of Thomas Newing. He used a technique known as the ‘double dyke’ or ‘twin skin’ which, as the names suggest, involved using two tapering outer walls with rubble infill and stone capping. The resulting walls are more pyramidal than rectangular, making them friendly to leg over.

More than 350 drystone walls have been recorded in the area and they are the source of much local pride on account of the aesthetic and historical significance. Ian Downes, the man who, according to reports of the Kiama Independent, is considered the present day Thomas Newing, has called the walls “a natural feature of Kiama”, a revealing description, the perhaps unintended philosophical implications of which puts Mr Downes squarely outside the modern, Western tradition that favours a firm distinction between cultural activities, such as wall making, and natural processes, such as rain.

Kiama is very proud of its drystone walls: there have been twelve town entry markers built (by Mr Downes) from drystone walls in homage to Newing’s efforts. The walls are also commonly listed as one of the tourist attractions of the area. There’s a town Dry Stone Wall Committee, composed of members from Kiama Rotary, Kiama Lions, the Historical Society, Kiama council and other community members. There’s even a cafe named after the walls, called the Stone Wall Cafe—originally I thought, with some surprise, that there might have been a bit of a ‘scene’ in Kiama. 

Indeed, there seems to be something utterly inoffensive and quaint about a drystone wall. To some extent quaintness simply becomes more probable with time passing. While it might be argued that smaller, less offensive things are likely to be more quaint, there’s really nothing inherently small and inoffensive about steam trains, which in their time were the cause of a good many deaths and on first sighting in rural England were often described as particularly violent phenomena (see Thomas Hardy). Perhaps things simply become candidates for quaintness when they are regarded as relatively diminished in terms of their overall impact on the world. Typewriters: yes. Printed maps: yes. Postage stamps: yes. Gaslight fittings: yes. Anything made from cement: not quite/ almost. Televisions: still too popular. Gameboys: just recently. Nonetheless, the form of the drystone wall tempts me to argue that, while perhaps not inherently quaint, the scale and composition at least have a probable relationship with things we’ve been bio-socially trained to regard as visually pleasing. It’s the combination of harmony and irregularity, which is absent from large, uniform walls, which appear to be made from one thing, or small piles of rubble, which don’t appear to be made at all.

Sham trees

My forays around the Kiama peripheries resulted in a most curious and unexpected discovery: a massive radio tower of some kind designed to be disguised as a tree. I first noticed the tower on account of the tree-like cement trunk, which is laudably close to the texture of bark, then looking upwards revealed that the structure was covered in branch-like nodes jutting out from the central columns all the way to the top. But the crowning glory and the feature that confirmed, irrefutably, the intent behind this astounding effort of verisimilitude, were the plastic leaves and branches in a heap encircling the base. The idea, it seemed, was that the leaf-covered branches on the ground would at some point be affixed to the branch nodes on the tower in order to obscure what must have otherwise been deemed an unsightly radio tower. Left naked in its present state, however, the tower looked even more ugly than most examples of its kind, with the branch nodes having the appearance of spikes, which, combined with the branching form of the tower, made the whole thing look like a gigantic mace, or at best, one of the maimed plane trees familiar to me from Sydney that are continuously cut to accommodate overhead electrical wires.

As far as signal-sending civic infrastructure goes, the Kiama Lighthouse no doubt receives far more attention from tourists and locals—in part on account of its quaintness—however, in my opinion, this bizarre tower is undoubtedly more unique and, in a way, far more revealing of the broader cultural preoccupations of the species who arranged its construction. The tower seems to be an excellent architectural instance of the so called ‘Streisand effect’, a psychological phenomenon whereby efforts to conceal something end up drawing more attention to it—in Streisand’s case, the attempt to hide photographs of her large house from the public only increased media attention. W. G. Sebald described something similar in his novel Austerlitz, with reference to a certain perverse logic operative in the building of fortifications, whereby larger, supposedly more impenetrable structures attract increased attention from enemy forces, while at the same time limiting the movements of the occupants who they are meant to protect. 

The fake tree tower speaks of our present, often laudable desires to limit the way we impinge on the natural world through more thoughtful design. The problem, however, is that the tower, and other superficial, naive fabrications of nature, are often not aesthetic improvements in any clear way. Like related examples of disingenuous greenwashing, the tower can in this sense perhaps be compared to the superficial use of medieval and religious iconography in the industrial age—19th century gothic pumping stations, such as Abbey Mills in London and Ryhope in Sunderland being classic examples.

Photographed catalogues of fake tree towers like the one in Kiama exist online, apparently the first appeared in Cape Town in 1996. Though in all my searching, I am yet to find another example in Australia, nor I have I been able to find a photograph of a tower caught in a state of autumnal undress. And this might be the saving grace of the Kiama tower. I can only speculate as to why the branches were on the ground when I ran past, but my hope is they can be preserved in this position, capturing the moment of equivocation, where those responsible for ordering the sham decide, halfarsedly, that it actually might be better not go through with it all and instead leave things in a state of permanent incompleteness. Mosts artists I know would have no shame in claiming such a ruse, which works both at the conceptual level, as a demonstration of the all too human hesitations that inform even our most sublime visions, and in terms of aesthetics, as the deliberate, nest-like arrangement of the “fallen” branches is arguably a far more appealing than a rigid orientation along the “trunk”.

At all events, discovering the fake tree tower had a striking personal significance on account of the recent attractions I’d visited in Bath, namely, the Sham Castle, which I encountered on the Skyline walk around the periphery of the city not much over two weeks ago. Discovering the sham tree gave me an unmistakable feeling of perspectives being related not primarily by time or space but by type or theme. In this instance, the shared attributes were: peripheral perspective on urban landscape obtained on foot + encountering a structure disguised as something else in order to improve the view.

An unsettling consequence of looking through photo catalogues of the fake tree towers–such as those of South African photographer Dillon Marsh–is that now I find myself becoming suspicious that certain trees, which I’d once imagined were actual trees, are in fact radio towers. This is particularly so in the case of the firmly perpendicular Norfolk Island Pines, which are a conspicuous part of the Kiama landscape. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at these trees from a distance in the same way again. There’s a flash of apprehension, each time I distinguish the form of a pine against the skyline, that I’m looking at a bit of telecommunications infrastructure. I’m inclined to declare, that Norfolk Island Pines do look kind of fake, too crystalline and rigid to be an organic form. But I never had this thought before I started looking at fake tree towers, which goes to show how primed we are by different reference points when making claims as to the realness and fakeness of certain things.

Hospitable quarries

A more successful example of dressing up Kiama’s natural infrastructure is evident at the Kiama Leisure Centre and Sports Complex, both of which now occupy an old basalt quarry. A sheer stone cliff of some scale overlooks the grassy fields and carpark, which gives the site a sense of drama that in my experience is matched only by sporting grounds with large stadiums. There is little point trying to say, definitively, whether the ambience of the place is accounted for by natural or artificial aspects, as the exposed rock, while undoubtedly an elemental presence, is itself the work of large-scale human intervention over the centuries.

Quarries are not typically thought to be appealing landscapes. Indeed, the English poet Alexander Pope used ‘quarry’ as an epithet in criticising the architecture of John Vanburgh. Along with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanburgh was a key proponent of the English baroque, which, in some more provocative architectural genealogies, such as those of Jonathan Meades, is claimed as a forerunner of Brutalism, largely on account of baroque grandeur being tempered by a peculiarly British austerity. Pope, who is thought to have been alluding to Vanburgh’s pièce de résistance, Blenheim Palace, gave the following appraisal of the structure in his fourth epistle to Lord Burlington: “Lo! what huge heaps of littleness around/ the whole a laboured quarry above ground”. While the Kiama Sports Complex and its surrounding cliffs may lack some of Blenheim’s flourishes, a comparison between the two is not as fanciful as first might appear. Both are imposing vertical presences calved from stone of a uniform hue, the appeal of which is further accentuated by the play of sunlight and shadow. Unlike Blenheim, the sports complex invites informal recreation and is permanently open, at least in the case of the playing fields, which allows for flourishes of the body in space (burpees and shadow boxing, for example) to make up for the lack of detail in the stonework.

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Quarries, particularly the reclaimed variety, are a reminder that what is considered above and below ground is to some extent contingent on human design. While Pope might have emphasised the building he scorned was a quarry “above ground”, there is in fact little need (outside those of poetic metre) for the qualification, as quarries are a reminder that above and below are relatively abstract ways of conceiving surfaces which are in reality continually modulated. There is nothing ‘below’ ground about the sheer cliff faces of the old, reclaimed quarries scattered around Kiama. They are now simply spaces of in-ness and exposure. In this sense, the terrestrial impression of quarries is misleading, they are as much air and vacancy as they are earth, as much a matter of seclusion as explosion.

At very general level, the sculpting of space from tensions between absence and presence in the example of the quarry shares a something in common with the small, domestic spaces, famously described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, including: houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners. At the same time, a quarry seems the inverse of such spaces, particularly the nest, which at an impressionistic level is the most quaintly un-quarry-like thing I could possibly imagine.

The vast evacuation of space evident in quarries is not, however, simply a matter of inhospitable vacancy. As the various industrious reclaimings around Kiama attest, redundancy and abundance are not opposites, an absence can also be an availability, the hospitality of which is contingent of the scale of the visions we have for it.

While there has been a renewed call for the life-giving possibilities of industrial ruins, particularly via the work of Anna Tsing (2015), the examples around Kiama have nothing of either the love of the minor or the sublime about them, two extremes which characterise so much of the aspirational thinking done in the humanities about landscapes. In the ruins of Bombo Headland Quarry, there is a wastewater treatment plant (perhaps enjoyed more by mosquitos than local residents), while the aforementioned sports and leisure complex occupies the space left by Pikes Hill Quarry. Further north, in the old Minnamurra Quarry, plans for a BMX bike park are being discussed for the currently unused Sanctuary Place picnic area.

Reflecting on these examples and the services they offer to the community, I wonder whether Tsing isn’t a little too single-minded in her variously hesitant and forceful interpretations of the industrial (big) as bad, and anything small, peripheral and non-institutionalised as good, particularly on account of the large-scale, highly-coordinated efforts that are likely needed as we come to face the impacts of the climate crisis–and more particularly still, if it’s a retreat or withdrawal of humans from the landscapes they have previously managed that we wish to coordinate. The industrial is often reflexively associated with the big and unfriendly, and its opposites–such as the organic–with the small and the friendly. In actuality, however, spectrums of ‘big-to-small’ and ‘bad-to-good’, rarely capture the manifold of mutant, hybridised ways in which science and technology are used to design our landscapes and atmospheres. While Tsing’s work is in a sense an effort to tell a more complex story of how life–specifically mushrooms– returns to ruined industrial landscapes–specifically Chernobyl–the word industrial is nonetheless used systematically as a pejorative throughout her book, as though no historical or future good has come or might possibly come from large-scale manufacturing. 

In clearing the way for big visions, however, I feel a certain, perhaps not entirely useful, apprehension. On the outskirts of Kiama, the new, currently operative Bombo Quarry still grows and, with the state government increasingly singing to the tune of commercial imperatives, there seems a possibility that slightly less civically-minded dreams might be projected into that vacant space. Perhaps Kiama will have its very own equivalent of InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland, a 337 guest room hotel situated in 88-meter-deep, water-filled, disused quarry. Though I sincerely hope the future residents of Kiama get something more akin to Rosherville Pleasure Gardens (old chalk quarry), or Parc des Buttes Chaumont (gypsum and lime).

Old Kiama Quarry

List of works cited

Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press

Crabb, Brendan (2016) “Dry stonewalls considered a key part of Kiama’s history”. Kiama Independent (March 10).

Foster-Wallace, David (2011) Infinite Jest. London: Hachette.

Sebald, W. G. (2001) Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: Penguin.

Tsing, Anna Lownhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

Weird things our ancestors used to do: Parked cars

Weird things our ancestors used to do: Parked cars

(Weird things our ancestors used to do is the script for a fictional podcast from some fifty or more years into the future where our two hosts, F and T discuss the strange lifestyle habits of people living in cities over the ages)

T: So you mean, cars, they used to be just sitting on the side of the street, like, waiting there, all day? How did they fit? Didn’t they get in the way?

F: Haha, yeah, imagine it, like streets with all these cars parked along the sides. The city would look like a great big car display centre.

T: Haha, yeah, how would you, like, get into the shops? It would be like one big wall of cars. Like you’d have to squeeze in-between the front of one car and the back of another.

F: Well, in today’s episode we’re going to look at the Sydney streetscapes of the twentieth and early twentieth century and explore the phenomenon of car parking.

T: I still can’t get my head around this. So, individual people were responsible for leaving a car that they drove on the side of the road, in the city, and they’d just leave it there all day, and then get back in and drive home.

F: Yes, that’s right T, they even had things called ‘pay and display’—want to have a guess what that was?

T: Let me guess…umm…so people paid a certain amount of money and they could display things in their cars so other people might buy them, like shops.

F: Haha. Close. No. Let me get the dictionary here. Play and display was: ‘a parking system in which a motorist buys a temporary permit from a coin-operated machine and displays it in the window of the vehicle.

T: Coins. That was a fun episode. If you didn’t hear our program on coins, search the archive.

F: One of the best.

T: I’m still way off getting this pay and display business. ‘Coin operated machine.’ So you’d park your car on the side of the street, in front of like a house or a shop, right where people are walking, and then this machine would come over to you, take your little bits of metal, that you’ve been carrying around in a bag all day, and then it would give you a, what was it…”

T: A permit, a permit or a ticket.

F: …a permit that you’d then leave in your window. What did they look like, these permits? Mine would have been yellow for sure.”

T: We all know how much you like yellow F, but tickets were generic. They only showed things like the date, the time your permit expired and identification details abut the city council.

F: Shut up. You mean, like, you couldn’t have your own photo on them or anything?

T: Just a bit of paper with some numbers F.

F: Get out.

T: Well, just so we don’t bore you with our banter and our mock horror all day, we’ve got a guest who, would you believe it, was alive when people used to park cars on the street, and can even remember getting a parking ticket. No this is really going to confuse you F. People used to get fined for leaving their car in a park for too long. They’d get parking tickets. Often quite hefty fines, that were issued by parking inspector.

F: Shut up.

T: Kieren, are you there. Kieren, are you there?

K: Yes, yes. I’m here.

T: Great. Now my host F is struggling to believe this, and many of our younger viewers will too, but you remember getting a parking ticket when you were younger. Would you like to tell us a bit about that?

K: Well, a parking ticket, now, that was a real kick in the teeth, I think they got up as high as five hundred dollars, if you parked in a No Standing.

F: No Standing?

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Henry Deane Plaza: Henry Who?

Henry Deane Plaza: Henry Who?

Henry Deane Plaza occupies a place of civic and commercial centrality in the city of Sydney. It is surrounded by important civic landmarks, including Central Station and the heritage-listed Parcels Post Office Building (now Adina Hotel). Those brave enough to pause amid the continual flow of pedestrian traffic can enjoy the spectacle of the station clock tower peeking over the top of the stairs that lead up to the YHA. It is a seemingly distant reminder of the not uncommon disjunct between the impression of a structure from the outside and the mood that pervades its interior and surrounds.

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The area around Central Station does not conform to the tidy grandeur of its large, historic buildings. Nonetheless, unlike some deserted urban centres, life is here in abundance–albeit often on discount.

The Plaza itself is perhaps the closest thing in the area to what might have once been considered a market square. It’s a paved, pedestrian area (I think you can buy the same large tiles at Bunnings) of a reasonably generous size that is surrounded by a range of different food (Lord of the Fries, Oporto, a German Bakery, a ‘grocer’, Krispy Kreme Doughnuts, a sushi shop) and retail outlets (chemist, newsagent, Vodafone, clothes shop)—on the website for the plaza, the chemist, newsagency and grocer are described as ‘essentials’.

Occasionally, before Christmas or Valentines day, or simply when a brand gets the urge to promote itself through an event, the plaza has the atmosphere of a traditional market square, with temporary vendors occupying tents (though one wouldn’t want to push this comparison too much, those familiar with the market squares in Norwich or Haarlem on a Saturday will be in for a nasty shock).

A water feature—centred around an abstract sculpture made from flowing, twisted steel pipe—occupies one side of the plaza. There are three medium-sized, not particularly healthy, plane trees in the centre (there are a further three at the street border), which hint at what might be possible in a space like this if vegetation had been more enduringly and widely valued in white settlement.

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Then main pedestrian thoroughfare is sheltered by a structure built in a style common to much public architecture of the period leading up to the 2000 Olympics. It’s a skeletal, glass-roofed thing, supported by steel pylons and cables, echoing the various sports stadia for which that time is known. The overall impression is a drab kind of zaniness, perhaps due to the predominance of zigzags, accumulated grime and sense of faded festivities.

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Place-making signage panels run diagonally down the oversized support pylons. They express a keenness to remind passers by (and they are more likely to be passers by than picnickers) that this is indeed Henry Dean Plaza and ought to be known as such. The street directory—a further attempt at orienting signage, also affixed to one of the support pylons—features what is surely in this context an unnecessary map identifying the various retail outlets against a legend. Such features—prior to the convenience of easily updatable digital panels—suggest longer-term ambitions for commercial outlets than the apparent reality dictates. The IGA Supermarket, the florist, Basanccino Bakery & Cafe, and–most memorably for me–Henry Henry Bar, have all since moved on, despite being recorded for the posterity on the map.

Henry Henry Bar— the name clearly inspired by another desperate effort to turn the plaza into Henry Deane Plaza—for some inexplicable reason attracted my patronage in the early 2000s when I was doing my undergraduate degree at UTS and living in Surry Hills. The space is now occupied by Priceline Chemist, where on occasion I have purchased sunscreen and useless earplugs on my way to doing laps at Prince Alfred Park pool.

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The designers of Henry Deane Plaza are unlikely to have imagined that some twenty years on from its physical construction, the space would have attracted the descriptive and evaluative energies of 284 amateur reviewers on Google. That’s right, there are 284 people wandering the planet who, like me, have thought it worthwhile not just to acknowledge, as the makers of the signs had hoped, that Henry Deane Plaza is a thing, but to judge, against some vague criteria, whether it is a good or bad thing.

It is curious to imagine what people might expect of Henry Deane Plaza based on the evaluations offered by the online reviewing community. A certain number of reviews keep their appraisals vague and positive: “Is a great place”; “Great shopping mall”; “Great shopping and food outlets”; “nice shopping centre with some good restaurant [sic] inside”; “Good”. Others see the collection of shops as “odd”, “random” or “interesting”. Some are less concerned with broader atmospherics and instead focus on handy hints or quibbles: “The food there is pretty good although the sushi joints make bigger roles for presentation and smaller to purchase!”; “Nice place to [sic] many drug addicts around”; “Busy little plaza with no public toilets. Not great.”

Other reviewers, while terse, offer a little more detail:

  • “Human & road traffic surrounded but can grab a quick bite or quick retail shop on your way through to bus or train”;
    “Few and useful shops. Easy access to the train station. Good place to sit around and chat, sip a coffee, grab some donuts at Krispy Kreme. Gives you a good vibe being here”;
  • “The small tunnels underground that you can access from George St. There are plenty of foods options nowadays and quite cheap too.”
  • “Interesting array of food outlets, representing the different cultures situated close to Sydney light rail and bus station. Ideal for the quick bite on the run, amongst the hustle and bustle of great Sydney.”
  • “A decorated metal and glass covered platform between two most busy roads. Under ground this, Devonshire Tunnel Extension pass through. It is mostly used as central place for various buses [sic] stop.”
  • “After walking past the long Central pedestrian tunnel, this continues to be an open-air space thoroughfare lined with various restaurants and some small shops. Good variety of food types and cultures for some quick bites.”
  • “Bit of a wasteland but some good retail stores, had a excellent barber, had a lovely breakfast at a cafe and cashed in my lotto tickets, so there’s plenty here.”
  • “A cold, emotionless outdoor plaza devoid of any real sense of culture or purpose. Two stars for the world-class collection of cigarette butts which can be seen through the cigarette smoke haze which tends to fill this area.”

The overall impression from these reviews is that Henry Deane Plaza is convenient, busy and cheap, which is about right. It’s also evident that some people regard the contrast between the relative openness of the plaza and the confines of surrounding tunnels to be important. And this, from my perspective, is perhaps what makes the place suggest a certain potential, albeit well hidden. Despite the otherwise utterly unremarkable, garish atmospherics of the place, emerging from the dim rush of Devonshire Street tunnel into this open, bright, treelined (maybe a bit rich) space, does occasionally lift the spirits.

Henry Deane Plaza also manifests online as a website, the logo of which features an illustration of a young bearded man with a spivvy haircut, dark sunglasses and the tagline: ’Hang with Henry”—I think not. The website reminds readers that Henry Deane Plaza is ‘where Sydney meets’ and encourages people to sign up to its newsletter “to keep up with the latest events and specials at the Plaza”—I think not.

The Plaza is vexed territory for the critic writing after postmodernism. On the one hand it seems off the mark to say, as one reviewer does, that the place is “devoid of any real sense of culture or purpose”. In as sense I feel the opposite: here is Sydney 2019 in all its glory, see it while you can. But on the other hand, I agree, it’s impossible not to regard Henry Deane Plaza as a classic example of a failure in urban design. The basic elements are there—trees, a sense of openness and leisure sharpened by contrast with the claustrophobic thoroughfare, a certain buzz and the spatial affordances for civic and commercial activity. Yet it feels anonymous, despite the efforts of the place makers to yell its name at every opportunity.

But who was Henry Deane? Exploratory inhabitants of the plaza may be lucky enough to discover the information panel that displays his biographical information. It is situated at the Lee Street entrance to the top level of the plaza, a largely deserted spatial anomaly populated by pigeons, air vents, the occasional smoker and a stand of palm trees. According to the panel, “Deane was Engineer-in-Chief the the Railway Construction Branch of the Department of Public Works between 1890 and 1912.” He was then appointed the first Engineer-in-Chief for the Commonwealth who worked on a number of large scale engineering projects, including the first and largest electric powerhouse, the Trans-Australian Railway and the Zig-zag railway. He was indeed bearded, as the contemporary logo for his plaza suggests, but far less irritating to look at.

Like the plaza itself, it seems that for most passes-by Deane is likely to remain a kind of known unknown, an anonymous name for something that almost comes into being but lacks a certain substantive quality that is common to place names which emerge from the enduring conventions of their users. Though perhaps, as the 284 reviewers attest, I am at the wrong point in history to be making such a claim.

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Book Review: Shit Gardens

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In the introduction to James Hull and Bede Brennan’s Shit Gardens, the authors spell out an ambivalence concerning aesthetic evaluation that is core to the concept and production of the book. For the authors, ‘shit’ describes gardens which might initially appear “inexplicably bad”, then, with time, come to be appreciated and inspire wonder. For Hull and Brennan, this sense of wonderment is provoked by the juxtaposition of “grand ambitions of intent with the inelegance of unfinished reality”, or what Peter Sloterdijk has described as the “aesthetics of disappointment”, which he argues characterises modernity more broadly (2013, 771).

However, it would be wrong to see these suburb delights as failures in any straightforward sense. As the authors stress, shit gardens are not “shit as a result of neglect”, but due to enduring departures from perfect from, whether through “a misunderstanding of scale, an appreciation for the weird, or bold disregard for convention.” 

The book is the product of walks through suburbia and, to some extent, the fact that now most people, whether they intend to take photos or not, find that they happen to have a camera in their pockets if they want to fulfil the seemingly impossible to resist demand of being contactable all the time. The authors have a hugely popular Instagram account @shitgardens, which has over 50,000 followers, a bunch of whom are credited with the photographs used in the book.

As tech commentator Ben Evans has noted in 2015, internet enabled image sharing exists on a historically unforeseen scale. As Evan writes, according to Kodak, in 1999 consumers took around 80 billion images. In 2015 the inevitably inexact number is somewhere between 2 and 5 trillion, which doesn’t include the images taken and not shared. That seems to suggest a difference in kind, rather than degree.

Shit Gardens is in part a product of this socio-technical ecology, which is composed of the camera enabled smartphone, image sharing services such as Instagram, internet infrastructure and the communities that participate in this unprecedented flow of images. The mundane is under surveillance, not by the hierarchically organised, Orwellian systems of power, but by people taking their evening walks and getting a little buzz out of sharing minor wonders with a remotely present crew.

Like the authors’ conception of ‘shit’, publishing a book is an exercise significantly informed by duration. Lots of people have hypothetical, imaginary books which they are going to write or might have written. But the distance between thought bubble and the horizon to completion can be a long and barren stretch, with few cairns along the way to reassure those who take the path that they are on the right track.

That is, until the internet. Blogs and social media have given people access to audiences who can immediately signal their interest in an idea. The immediacy with which information can be published significantly reduces the burden of having to invest time and emotional effort into something that might not deliver a reward. It changes the hedonic nature of the performance of writing or curating. Now the pleasure of making oneself known and yet obscure to world at the same time—traditionally a relatively exclusive pleasure for published writers—is an ambient availability for anyone who can afford or steal a smartphone. Instagram can provide that often sorely needed little hit of public affirmation on the long trail to the traditionally more auspicious occasions of a gallery opening or book launch–oddly enough, in this digital age, these kinds of events retain a lustre for which virtual voting systems do not adequately substitute. Instagram is also an invaluable source of data for book publishers and other talent scouts in search of content, which is how @shitgardens the Instagram account became Shit Gardens the book.

But it would be wrong to therefore presume books like Shit Gardens are without generic precedent before the digital age. Clearly there are forceful echoes of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, in this work. The book is a collection of irregular gems. There is no proof here of god’s work in the universal oneness of things. Rather, what Shit Gardens proves, or rather celebrates, is the sometimes near pathological activity of humans operating autonomously from intelligent design. There are suggestive principles of order, but these are overlaid thematically by the authors according to diverse criteria. The chapters include: Topiaries (100% Plant-Based Surrealism), Gardens of Antiquity (Sentimental Statuary), Astroturf (The Future of Lawn), Hard Surfaces (High-Performance Concrete), Water Features (From Atlantis to the Present), Zen Gardens (The Suburban Minimalist), and WTF (Rethinking the Absurd). The best of which in my opinion is the chapter on Water Features. There is something about the detail and aspirations of these sculptural works that seems to paradigmatically express the sentiments of the book. And they photograph particularly well.

Paul Barker’s brilliant The Freedoms of Suburbia is a more recent precedent. Parker’s work is, like Shit Gardens, a defence of the diverse, vernacular adaptations which suburbia seems to afford. In contrast to the commonly held notion that postwar urban developments are lifeless places, both these books suggest that character is a quality that trumps beauty.

Shit Gardens is a affirmation of Daniel Harris’ argument that the aesthetic is “entirely indiscriminate in its choice of venue” (2001, xi). This has always to some extent been the case. However, the recent explosion of contexts for ‘hanging’ or posting works and the proliferation of communities devoted to aesthetic judgement means that it has become explicit and what we mean by aesthetic judgement is changing as a result. Hence Shit Gardens: which joins the countless books on gardens informed by the aesthetic of the beautiful, the sublime or the picturesque.

While the paradoxical vagueness and forcefulness of ‘shit’ as an aesthetic evaluation makes it perfect for an Instagram handle, it is actually the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ which in some senses more accurately captures the principles of discrimination, order and feeling at work in the book. As Sianne Ngai notes in her work on minor aesthetic categories, the interesting is an aesthetic which gives place to the role time plays in aesthetic judgement:

In contrast to the once-and-for-allness of our experience of, say, the sublime, the object we find interesting is one we tend to come back to, as if to verify that it is still interesting. To judge something interesting is thus always, potentially, to find it interesting again. In contrast to the “suddenness” Karl Heinz Bohrer celebrates as the essence of the aesthetic relation, here aesthetic experience seems narrativized or to unfold in a succession of episodes. (786)

The interesting is in abundance in a media ecology where cumulative catalogues of always accessible, different yet similar, aesthetic experiences are available in your pocket. As Ngai emphasises, the interesting is episodic. Its meaning is not in singularity but in the series. In this sense shit gardens become interesting not so much in themselves alone, as forceful, inescapable events of great magnitude and unforeseen meaning, but as a catalogue of impressionistically or analogically related types.

When Hull and Brennan note in their introduction that the shit-ness of shit gardens transforms from mild repulsion or puzzlement to perhaps equally mild wonder, they are describing a process that is very different to the idea of an sudden, emphatic, immediately transformative aesthetic experience associated with the sublime, and the more purely and straightforwardly pleasurable feelings that typically accompany the beautiful.  The caveats the authors make concerning the question of aesthetic judgement at the beginning of the book indicate that the gardens they have chosen in some sense thwart or resist immediate judgement. On first glance they might strike us a shit, but then a different, more complicated sentiment emerges, as we attempt to integrate expectations of perfection with an imperfect reality, after which we might experience feelings of sympathy, or even reverence, at ingenuity, diversity, perversity, audacity, sentimentality, indifference to standards and the peculiar interpretation of standards.

List of works cited

Barker, Paul. The Freedoms of Suburbia. London: Frances Lincoln Limited (2009).

Evans, Benedict, “How many pictures?” August 27, 2015. Available from, https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2015/8/19/how-many-pictures

Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. Da Capo Press (2000).

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2012).

Sloterdijk, P. Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology Globes, translated by Wieland Hoban. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press (2014).

Nairn’s London, 2018, Part I.

On my recent trip to London I mapped out a walk across the inner north of the city, from Shoredich in the inner East, to Kensal Green in the inner west. Nairn’s London (1966) and the London A-Z (street directory) were my primary navigation aids.

One expects occasional disappointments when travelling with a guidebook written in 1966. There have been big changes across that part of the city over the last half century. Key among these is a massive influx of money and commercial enterprise, particularly in the inner east.

Nairn’s entry for the old Spitalfields market describes it as doomed, unloved and sombre, a far cry from the peculiarly contemporary combination of wholesome, Scandinavian-inspired design (plywood, plants, pastels and bold stripes) and gastronomic cornucopia that now attracts crowds of tourists and corporate lunchers. He would have no doubt had a wry word to say about the cafe adored with fake pot plants in little colourful buckets that now occupies the churchyard at Nicholas Hawksmoor’s much admired Christchurch just across the road. And no doubt the sign on the outside of the Turkish Baths in Bishopsgate Churchyard, which reads ‘A Little Palace of Luxury: Exclusive Event Hire for Up to 150 Standing or 90 seated’, and is now accessible by appointment only,  would have provoked negative expressions of a more vehement variety. In 1966 Nairn was already bemoaning the increasingly common habit of locking up churches, which prevented him having a poke around.

On that score, Christchurch was still open, with a chatty lady at the desk selling brochures about the church and keen to engage my travelling partner and I in a conversation about the relationship between the building and the creed that inspired its construction. I didn’t tell her that my pilgrimage was of a literary and architectural nature.

In addition to attracting the effusive praise of Nairn, Hawksmoor’s churches were the key inspiration for Ian Sinclair’s seminal Lud Heat, the first work in Sinclair’s oeuvre which begins a tradition of tracing out routes in the city based on hidden histories, urban wastelands and chance. The book inspired Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor and its influence can be registered in the television documentaries of Jonathan Meades, particularly Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloody-mindedness. Meades positions Hawksmoor’s buildings alongside his one time colleague John Vanbrugh as the central proponents of the English Baroque, a style which he regards analogous to the brutalism in its peculiarly austere and yet impactful sense of drama.

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The works of storytellers like Sinclair, Meades, Ackroyd and others including Patrick Keiller, Patrick Wright and Will Self were on my mind as I walked this part of the city. I thought about how the new challenge writers for this stripe since the late nineties—and to be sure the melancholic no doubt warms to this kind of thing—must have been to shift into a mode where they write despairingly about the cornucopia of pleasures that now exist in their old haunts, rather than about the neglect and desolation that provided the romance and source of insight in the past. While the force of urban renewal arguably highlights abandonment in the intense contrasts it produces between those with and without money, walking my route through London, there was an unmistakable and perhaps naive sense that life was here in abundance.

I also thought about the vast differences between what I felt walking–sometimes running–the city, the mood evoked by these melancholic writers of London, and the different traditions in which I might have been participating due to my cultural inheritance. In particular, I thought of Barry McKenzie, a character made famous by the Australian comedian Barry Humphries, and whose influence can still be detected, albeit in a significantly watered-down version, in the current iteration of the cringeworthy Qantas air safety videos. It would have been very uncharacteristic for McKenzie to be trekking through the East End, admiring the architecture and a certain literary tradition for whom it is a preoccupation. Nonetheless, the force of the Aussie yokel still glowed within me when conducting my relations with any pompous Londoners and I thought it might be an interesting contribution both to the legacy of the brash Aussie and the literary archive about this area of city if I expressed my relatively esoteric pursuits in  tone that was in contrast to the whingeing natives on whose turf I trespassed.

Back in the 1960s, when McKenzie was created and Nairn’s book on London was first published, the Barbican Centre was still being built. The prohibitively expensive cost of its residential real estate aside, this building surely one of the better architectural achievements in this part of the city. For the weary foot traveller, who’s been roughed up by the unrelenting commotion of traffic and construction on the streets around Liverpool Street Station, the Barbican is an oasis of calm. While the massive, multi-towered complex, which includes a library, theatre, school, restaurants, gallery and exclusive residential living, might not be a shining example of affordable public amenity, nonetheless, it remains an achievement to calve out a distinctive, relatively accessible, multipurpose space on this scale in the centre of a city like London. And if my Instagram is anything to go by, it seems the aesthetic elements of the architecture are belatedly finding favour with an increasingly large audience.

Just up the road from the Barbican is The Golden Lane Estate (began 1953). The design shares some similarities with the Barbican: an elevated, multi-winged housing complex, which, as Nairn notes, can be traversed in many different directions: “along corridors, under buildings, down steps and up ramps”. It also makes great use of shared green space, in the form of large, sunken gardens and fenceless little yards, the better maintained of which blend into each other to form one, continuous band of plant-life.

True to form, Nairn commends the Golden Lane development due to itself inclusion of a pub (the Shakespeare, “modern, but without the decorative affectations that plague pub designers”). To my delight, it remains in place, exactly how Nairn described it: a subdued, but not drab environment, that feels as though it could just as easily be in country town. A few customers chat with the bar staff in the main bar (probably about the World Cup) and a young man gives the piano a tickle in one of the other rooms. Entering it is a great chance to experience one of the many atmospheric transformations that London seems to do better than any other city.

One of the things that makes Nairn’s London so great is the attention he pays to the drama, not just of isolated buildings, but the subtle distortions in the flow of the city to which both buildings and topography contribute. A classic example is the passage by St George in Bloomsbury.

After being hugely disappointed by Sun Street passage earlier in the day, the “exhilarating” quality of which is entirely absent, my travelling partner and I weathered the car and bus clogged roads and walked to St George, our second Hawksmoor church for the day.

In Nairn’s London the Sun Street passage was a transition point from the “frilly” importance of Liverpool Street Station and the “sad emptiness of south Shoreditch”. With Shoreditch now far from sad and empty, and one entire wall of the passage obscured by the temporary fence of the construction works, the intensity of the contrast Nairn describes has weakened to such a degree that it is imperceptible.

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Thankfully, the experience he describes at St George passage is preserved in full and is further augmented as one marvels at Nairn for having focused on such an inconspicuous urban feature, rather than the “prodigious”church, which, while mentioned, is shunned due its “disparate elements” not seeming to cohere.

It’s unlikely anyone unfamiliar with the church would discover the passage. There are limited visual cues from the street or even from within the churchyard. The surprise that it’s there is certainly part of its value. Nairn describes his route as follows:

Start in Bloomsbury way and follow signs around the left hand side of the portico to St George’s Hall. The gap between the church and the neighbouring buildings narrows to a few feet, so that you are thrust against the prodigious keystones, actually touch the wonderful time-worn scales on the Portland stone. Then the way dives down: a Hawksmoorean turn even though it is provided by accident. It turns a corner by going down and then up again. Seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up. It sounds simple but in fact has the drama of a full symphonic movement. (112-113).

In reading this one imagines Nairn moving through his city as though it were a labyrinthine system of theatre sets, each waiting to be made explicit, firstly, by the movement of a body which is attuned to its performative potentials, then, secondly, in the writing, that once again performs the experience, and continues to do so, across time and space, every time it is read. As is typical of his observations, an eye for the mechanical aspects of a design “seven steps down, a ninety-degree bend, six steps up” is combined with an appreciation for what it offers as a whole, the “full symphonic movement”.

The entry finishes with Nairn popping out on the other side of the church, on Little Russel Street, taking in a building that is renewed by this different vantage, the quieter ambience of the street. He suggests that the explorer might go “Back again, if you wish, and whole whole thing unwinds in a completely different sequence”.

This isn’t the kind of place that immediately makes sense as something one would travel halfway across North London on foot to visit. And without Nairn as a guide, the minor details of the surroundings and the different aspects that are woven together aren’t likely to be as affecting. But resting on the steps amid the pot plants along the side of the church, and refilling my water bottle from the tap there, I felt very thankful for this man who had such a generous apprehension of his city and who had bothered to take the time to put down in words so we could share in his experience.

To be continued…

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Service station service

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Church service or car service? Painting by Rachael Wakefield-Rann

For a modern institution that is explicitly about service, todays service stations offer very little in the way of meaningful service experience. Gone are the days when the station staff would come out, welcome customers before filling their car and perhaps offer a windscreen clean and an oil check. Unless you’re one of those well-adapted individuals that uses the pay-at-the-pump option, heading inside often involves a decent wait in a queue while attempting to ignore the temptations and visual noise of the more or less exclusively nasty range of snacks and reading material.

There are a few exceptions. The crew at Rosebery Service Station in Sydney still offer the full-service experience.  Unsurprisingly it’s a long standing (since 1974), family run businesses. There’s a small handful of traditional service stations like these that exist around the country.

At the other, more contemporary, end of the spectrum, the Caltex on Parramatta Road in Concord is the first of its kind to ditch the old Star Mart brand and adopt “The Foodary”, which offers a range of healthy, gourmet food (by service station standards), including Brasserie Bread and Sumo Salad.

This is certainly innovation by increments. Any suggestion of “transformation” in the language of those associated with the development needs to be taken with a grain of salt. The fit-out is a classic example of what Kyle Chayka calls “airspace”, a kind of watered down hipster aesthetic; minimalism combined with organic authenticity. There are mobile knowledge workers on their laptops and plenty of indoor plants in the advertising imagery.

Bruce Rosengarten’s (Caltex Australia’s Executive General Manager Commercial) suggestion that The Foodary doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station is true up to a point: it doesn’t look like a traditional petrol station, but there won’t be any enduring sense of vertigo regarding where you’ve ended up once you go inside. It’s pretty much Star Mart plus Sumo Salad, some nutritious snacks, decent bread and “neutered Scandinavianism”. And perhaps Caltex will be all the better for it. If you haven’t got an eye for detail, then have a couple of drinks, go inside, spin around on the same spot for a minute, open your eyes, and you might feel for a second as though you’re in Manly Greenhouse. 

Service station restaurants

On a few occasions in the past I’ve been revived fleetingly after a couple of hours in the surf by a sausage roll, a Dare Iced Coffee and a packet of Kettle chilli chips from the Caltex on Pittwater Road in Manly, or by a Nandos burger above the BP on Parramatta Road before a big drive west. However, for the most part, the food at service stations is like the food at the cinema, a masochistic pleasure that I’d willingly see replaced by something more nutritious, distinctive and tasty.

In an urban context, taxi and now to a lesser extent Uber drivers are the “extreme users” of service stations (in the country its truckies). There are a couple of service stations close to the inner city that offer, or once offered, services that cater specifically to their needs.

The Taxi Driver Food Court on Regent Street in Redfern, previously part of the GoGas Service Station (now Budget), once offered a range of Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Indian tucker. You could get a seasonal vegetables, daal and a drink with plain rice there for under ten bucks. 

The Taxi Driver Food Court, soon to be Manny’s Pizza Diner

It’s currently empty shell is surely ripe for a popup foodie concept: it’s right across from the swarming hipster nest that is the Lord Gladston, has 24hr licence and is the perfect combination of grungy novelty and proximity to trend aware consumers, who tend to spend their money on food and drink.

(And sure enough, hot off the press, Evan Hansimikali, previous owner of the recently sold Pink Salt in Double Bay, has purchased the servo and will open Manny’s Pizza Diner in the space later this year.)

On Bourke Street Waterloo, right in the thick of the rapidly emerging jungle of apartment blocks, is a small cafe/ restaurant attached to the United Petrol Station, which is  much frequented by cab drivers due to its gas bowser, discount offers on fuel, generous parking spaces and garage. The cafe doesn’t operate during the evenings, but has outdoor tables and chairs and sells a range of dishes, including banh mi rolls.  

Although there’s no petrol on offer, the Weighbridge Cafe on Bourke Rd in Alexandria is another unique, culinary-automotive-service mashup. Here you can get your vehicle weighed while downing a latte and scoffing a caesar salad.

The future of service stations

According AECOM, there were around 25,000 service stations in Australia in the 1970s, with a national population of 13 million, that’s roughly one for every 520 people. Today there are about 6,500 service stations in total for a population that has almost doubled. 

Car ownership is increasingly unpopular among urban millennials in Australia. AECOM’s Transport On Demand report “predicted that every car share vehicle in Sydney could take up to 10 private vehicles off the road by 2036”. 

What does this mean for the future of service stations? Maybe they’ll become places that are increasingly frequented by a more exclusive set of users? Maybe they’ll develop offerings that are more meaningfully targeted to the values and habits of particular user groups, like Saturday Uber drivers, or people hiring a GoGet for a road trip—I remember a time when browsing the CD or cassette selection in a servo on a road trip was decent way to take a break from the rigours of the highway, though I’m not sure if I ever bought one. Maybe the human body, crippled by the  posture driving requires us to adopt, is the real thing stations should be servicing? 

The people at AECOM argue that the value in service stations “is not the fuel they provide” but “their strategically significant locations” (something clearly recognised by Hansimikali in his recent purchase). As electric and other low emissions options become more common, there’s less of the undesirable fume-filled atmospherics required by petrol vehicles. Service stations feature large, level sections of sheltered outdoor space. In a future after petrol, with the right kind of design, they might become the ideal location for outdoor eating?

In the 1970s, warehouses in New York’s old industrial suburbs became the foundations for a new, globally sought after postindustrial aesthetic of loft living. Maybe the old automotive infrastructure of cities will become mixed into new modes of leisure and movement? I suppose if Merviale can do it in a drive through bottlo, why not a service station? 

The other just as likely alternative is evidenced in the stone horse troughs that pop up in surprising locations in the city. In rural NSW, where station numbers have dwindled significantly due to a marked decrease in the labour required on farms, the old bowsers already pop up with a reasonable degree of regularity in locations where they are orphaned from their original purpose.

If, as Roland Barthes suggested, “cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals”, then no doubt some of automotive infrastructure of our cities will be preserved, some of it converted and some demolished. Perhaps the traditional service models, like the one still operative in Rosebery, will be the ones that endure.   

The Caltex Sign at the Wattle Flat General Store
More signage like this please! Petersen’s Garage in Bundanoon

Fish and chips: A Retro Future

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From the menu board at the long running Vaucluse Ocean Foods

Getting takeaway fish and chips, or more truthfully, chips and potato scallops, from the shop at Crescent Head is one of the enduring memories from my family holidays in the late eighties and early nineties. The nice old lady would always throw in an extra scallop or two, a gesture which at the time expressed a level of generosity so grand it was beyond the powers of my young mind to compute.

It closed sometime in the 90s, and such a shame. The beach holiday never seemed complete without that paper parcel gradually becoming transparent due to the oil soaked goodness it held together.

As noted by John K. Walton in his stand alone socio-historical study, Fish and Chips and the British Working Class, 1870-1930, fish and chips is “in many ways the pioneer fast food industry”. Like many other craft-based industries, fish and chips evolved from a “petty” hawker trade to something that existed on an industrial scale (246). The peak of their popularity was during the interwar years, where in industrial cities like Preston, “there must have been, quite literally, a fish and chop shop on every street” (247). For many working class families, they functioned as an affordable escape from the monotony of “bread, dripping, jam and tea”.

Fish and chips became part of the way British people described who they are. A kind of national symbol that to some degree transcended social class. Walton cites a wistful remark from a patriotic, right wing magazine published in 1927, lamenting that England used to stand for “statesmanship and stability, bowler hats and brollies, afternoon tea, cricket, old school ties, fish and chips, jellied eels and a week at Bognor”.

To some extent fish and chips in Australia also shares a connectedness to values associated with working class patriotism. Perhaps the most significant example of this in recent years is evident in the story of Pauline Hanson, who has often traded on her experience owning and working in a fish and chip in Ipswich.

A mood in a meal

While neither uniform nor complete, fish and chips have undergone a decline in Britain and Australia since the second World War. There are no doubt many reasons for this, key among them the increased presence and popularity of other, aggressively marketed, fast-food options from America.

To this extent, fish and chips have value as retro icon, which can be activated for both negative and positive purposes. In W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, for example, fish and chips are part of the broader, melancholic atmospherics of British seaside towns, such as Lowestoft and Southwald, which no longer cater to the same number of holiday goers they once saw in their heyday, before Ryanair allowed people to fly to Northern Spain for a pittance—although, other perspectives on the towns show them in a less lugubrious dimension than Sebald.

Sitting down to dinner in an otherwise deserted hotel restaurant in Lowestoft, the narrator is served “a fish that had doubtless lain entombed in the deep-freeze for years”. The amusing description which follows is without doubt the most elaborate piece of culinary criticism in Sebald’s oeuvre:

The breadcrumb amour plating of the fish had been partially singed by the grill, and the prongs of my fork bent on it. Indeed it was so difficult to penetrate what eventually proved to be nothing but an empty shell that my plate was a hideous mess once the operation was over. The tartare sauce that I had had to squeeze out of the plastic sachet was turned grey by the sooty breadcrumbs, and the fish itself, or what feigned to be fish, lay a sorry wreck among the grass-green peas and the remains of soggy chips that gleamed with fat.

There are few better ways to dramatise a sense of disappointment than through a bad meal. If, as Steven Connor suggests, eating is ‘the most conspicuous form of our bodily transactions with the world’ (2010: 332), then the descriptions of food can carry with them the sensory force of an insult or embrace.  Sebald transfers some of the sensitivity he shows to buildings, atmospheres, people and objects to the delights and disappointments of the table. The battered fish is understood as the consequence of different, enduring events that occur over time (from its tomb in the deep freeze, to the grill, to the narrator’s plate) and a spatially interesting phenomena, composed of a distinct interior and exterior.

The presence of oil, such a crucial aspect of the fish and chip experience in general, gives further expressivity to the meal. Oil is unique as a substance in its paradoxical capacity to mediate and carry light between the interior and the surface. This no doubt partially explains its centrality to religious rites of unction, a power is which is backgrounded in favour of the restorative creaminess of contemporary cosmetics (Connor, 2004). When things gleam with oil, like the narrator’s chips, they suggest an oiliness that is more than just a surface phenomena. Things that gleam with oil are oily through and through. Oil soaked.

Battered nationalities

Leo Schofield is more sanguine in his account of the iconic Australian fish and chippie, Doyles, in the Avis Guide Eating Out in Sydney 1975. Writing of the now closed iteration of the restaurant at Rose Bay, Schofield describes the atmospherics as “rampant Aussie kitsch”, and, like the fish and chips in Britain, which represents something essentially British, is essentially Australian:

The menu with its news items about Granny Doyle’s secret recipe for Chilli Plum Sauce, the waitresses in their button-through dirndls, the nickel cubes of paper serviettes, the waxed paper buckets of tartare sauce, the massive helpings…could they happen anywhere else but Oz?

The meal is the battleground where Australia fights to transcend its Anglo heritage: “The British may have invented Fish and Chips but the Doyle’s perfected them. Made batter that’s crispier and crunchier than any Pommie fish chop could manage and wrapped it round fish that leaves plaice at the starting post in the flavour stakes”. Much hinges on the batter, which is the vehicle for delivering the allusive but all important crispness.

The late twentieth century cultural theorist Roland Barthes has perhaps had the best word on the culinary phenomenon of crispness, which he suggests “designates an almost magical quality, a certain briskness or sharpness, as opposed to the soft, soothing character of sweet foods.’’ In oily foods like fish and chips the task of generating crispness is all the more tenuous, but when it comes off, satisfying richness is covertly delivered as a kind of freshness. Richness as freshness, which the Krispy Cream franchise so unabashedly advertises, is the ultimate culinary trick.

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Doyle’s at Watson’s Bay

The sensory impact of the dish and the experience at Doyles becomes the material for what, with contemporary eyes, seems to be one of the most unfortunate food related metaphors I’ve come across: “The fish, of course, is wonderful and the French would poach it exquisitely, veil it in some cloud-like sauce and gently seduce one’s taste buds. At Doyles they’re not French and Australians prefer rape to seduction any day”. And if that weren’t bad enough, he continues, “If it’s inevitable, relax and enjoy it.” Then, on the next page, the review for Doyles on the Beach, at Watson’s Bay, begins, “Rape as before, but this time on the beach.”

I’ve discussed the political and ethical implications of this language is some detail elsewhere. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far: the US president happily flouts the word when manufacturing a sense of indignation about the extent to which foreign countries feel an entitlement to America’s benevolence.

Passing over the chilling nature of Schofield’s metaphor, it’s evident that once again fish and chips provide the context for an Australian identity to be distinguished. This time the meal functions as a point of distinction between Aussies and the French, who are stereotyped as more delicate and seductive, in comparison with the brash, direct Australian experience on offer at Doyles. Schofield is no doubt letting his own writing drift into a kind of deliberate poor taste that matches the kitsch quality of Doyles. Whether or not it serves him well in this regard I’m unsure.

For Schofield, and perhaps for Sydney, Doyle’s has become a paradigm for Australian dining. When referring to the Paragon Seafood Restaurant in Malabar, he describes it as “the Southern Suburbs answer to Doyles” and muses that in the right weather when “the sun is high and the wind not too much so” that there is “no more perfect place to lunch” than at the concrete promenade at Watsons Bay (where the oldest iteration of Doyles Fish and Chip Restaurant still operates).

Contemporary Kitschury

Detecting kitsch has become difficult now that irony is so pervasive and its manifestations so varied. Merivale’s growing portfolio of themed eating outlets toy with the limits of the stylish and the kitsch in this regard. The Fish Shop in Potts Point is a perfect example. A classic Sydney manifestation of the culinary postmodern, it’s a retro throwback to a pastiche of different histories and cultures, and to my knowledge the first, new, self consciously retro fish and chippie of its kind in the city. Terry Durack captures it well in his 2012 review: “Part English fish-and-chippy, part New York oyster bar and part Maryland crab shack, it’s also hysterically, crazily, absurdly, over-themed”. The least authentic thing about it is the $28 price tag for the fish and chips, a far cry from its working class origins. It’s an approach that makes use of history and culture as reference points, but the goal is atmosphere rather than accuracy—so, if he wants to remain free from hypocrisy, this writer can’t afford to be too cynical about the enterprise.

Once again, much is made of the consistency of the batter in Durack’s review:

“The four fingers [of flathead] are lightly battered and lightly cooked, which means the fish is cooked perfectly but the batter softens quickly. They’re going to have to toughen up and cook longer and harder, especially for takeaway orders. The accompanying chips, some of which are skin-on, are also quick to soften; as opposed to the golden triple-cooked chips you get when you order chips as a side order ($6.50).”

Softness is the death of crispness. Such is the importance of this mysterious “food spirit”, to use Barthes’ words, that it is worth risking over-cooked fish in order to achieve it.

The new Saint Peter fish butchery on Oxford Street is a further evolution in the fish and chip culture of Sydney. An absence of omnipresent fish shop ice, or the ice-water hybrid, slurry, will be among it’s key features. Transition to slurry, or more broadly, temperature control, is the reason why traditional fish and chippies often feature those distinctive plastic flaps at the entrance.

Fish in the Saint Peter butchery will “be displayed in static refrigeration rather than on ice”. A small scale approach will allow proprietors Josh and Julie Niland to focus on the product with a degree fastidiousness hitherto unheard of in fish retail. Part of this approach is informed by Niland’s knowledge that once caught, fish and water do not mix. It gets into sponge-like flesh and, you guessed it, prevents the flesh from  staying crisp: “If there is excess moisture present, the skin will struggle to stay crisp or the flesh will be wet and potentially mushy if cooked through.” 

The butchery will sell the takeaway fish and chips previously available at the nearby restaurant, which, in my opinion, is the best fish and chips in the city.

Gleaming with reviews

According to Google Maps there are a handful of fish and chip shops near where I live in Waterloo. The oldest is Alexandria Seafood, established in 1986. Thirty plus years is great going in a city like Sydney, particularly when persisting at the same thing without expanding or reimagining the enterprise.

Unlike many of the new eateries in the area, Alexandria Seafoods is not in a food precinct in a converted industrial warehouse. It’s not on a high street either. I must have come close to seeing it dozens of times, in the blur of a run or a car trip, before it became explicit: an isolated marine outpost in an unlikely suburban street. On the various drop down banners and the awning a distinctive fish icon swims amid bubbles. There’s another, different fish on a backlit sign above the awning, with a curious, bright green face and tail.

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Worryingly, the only fish on display on my recent visit is already in batter and looking a long way from fresh. There’s a laminated page from the 2006 SMH Good Living (what Good Food used to be called), stuck to the wall, exact date November 28. It’s from section written up by Kate Duthie, titled ‘Feedback’. The reader-centred premise is made for a dish like fish and chips, which induces parochialisms usually reserved for mum’s cooking or regional preferences. Annie, Craig, Deez, Rach, Sunny, Polly, Crustacean lover, Weezy, Scott, Gill, Liz, J.S., Diane, Peter, CD, Tim, papertiger and Jason have all written in with their favoured fish and chippies. Jason’s comment is last, highlighted in pink:

Alexandria Seafoods on Mitchell Road is always busy, regardless of when you go there. And for good reasons. The fish and chips are lovely and crisp, and never too oily. Grab half a dozen oysters while you wait and your fish and chips down the road at Sydney Park.

Crispness, again! And maintaining that delicate balance of oily goodness without greasy saturation.

I can confirm with certainty that today the place is no longer “always busy”: it is sometimes not busy. On Sunday evening last week, for example, there wasn’t another customer in sight at 6pm. I wonder how they justified having four blokes behind the counter watching the league. Maybe turning a profit is only part of the story and it’s also an opportunity for the family to hangout. Maybe they do their trade a bit later, or earlier, when the footy is on at Erskinville Oval. Maybe Fishbone & Co, recently awarded “The Best Chips in NSW” (by who I’m not sure), just up the road on McEvoy Street is sucking away some of the trade.

The reader review from 2006 stuck to the wall is a quaint artefact from a time when such perspectives were harder to access. Search ‘Alexandria Seafoods’ in Google and you’re immediately supplied with 83 Google Reviews, plus 37 on Zomato, 11 on Trip Advisor and 10 on Facebook, each accompanied by the omnipresent scale of five stars.

My levels of doubt about quality increase as I read more reviews, despite the overall rating of 4.5 stars. All it takes is a couple of naysayers to introduce uncertainty (the same technique used by climate change deniers). This is the world of online rating systems, where the standard very quickly becomes ratcheted up to perfect, close to perfect or a no go zone. Soon it will make more sense to assume everything is between 4 and 5 stars and give the score as a fraction between 4 and 5. Then as a smaller fraction between 4.9 and 5 when that system is broken. And so on ad infinitum. The Zeno’s Paradox of online rating systems.

While there’s not a fish and chip shop on every corner these days, viewed through the prism of a smartphone, there seems like there’s enough to keep even a capricious foodie occupied. Catching the train from Penrith to Redfern with ‘fish and chips’ typed into Google Maps is an experience that is at once distressing and full of promise, as tens of unvisited, frequently reviewed, fish and chippies appear and disappear on the smartphone.

Maybe there’s something in Ben Evan’s idea of future shops trying to make themselves ungoogleable, catering to a loyal crowd of word-of-mouth customers, with the paradoxical collateral, no doubt, of appealing to hipsters and being discussed  more than ever online. It’s easy to see how trying to opt out of the internet would  become a full time occupation, there’d certainly be no time left to watch the rugby league on Sunday.

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The iconic wavy roof in The One That Got Away, on Bondi Road

Works cited

Barthes, Roland. ‘‘Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,’’ in Food and Culture: A Reader, ed. Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 1997), 31.

Connor, Steven. The Matter of Air (London: Reaktion, 2010).

Connor, Steven. The Book of Skin, (London: Reaktion, 2004).

Lee, Tom. “Contemporary Perspectives in Aesthetic Theory: Steven Connor, Sianne Ngai and the Edible World.” Journal of Aesthetics and Culture (2016): 8 (1).

Sebald, W. G. The Rings of Saturn. Trans. Michael Hulse. London: Harvill Press, 1998.

Walton, J.K., Fish and Chips, and the British Working Class, 1870-1940. (A&C Black, 1994).