Mardi Gras Festival, Part 1

look at the life of a gay man 40 years ago

Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag

 

The last two weeks of February are celebrated in Sydney as Mardi Gras Festival, culminating on the first Saturday in March with the fantastical celebratory Grand Parade down Oxford Street. 2018 marks 40 years since the first March, held on Saturday June 24, 1978. We’ll hear about the Day of Solidarity and that March from Buzz in Part 2.

In Part 1 I want to look at the life of a gay man 40 years ago, as exemplified by Harry’s friend Jaroslav.

In 1970s Sydney, Jaroslav has two black marks against him: he is a Croatian migrant, AKA “a wog”. [It didn’t matter what nationality a migrant or “New Australian” was, they were termed “wogs” or “dagos”, often interchangeably.]

Even worse, he is a homosexual, AKA “a fag” or “poofta”.

We understand Jaro is gay through his reminisces of his poet/political activist lover, Damir in Zagreb.

He was so beautiful: those wide bright eyes

and curling light brown hair, his footballer’s legs

his wandering hands, his kisses.

 In outback Australia after fleeing civil war in Croatia, Jaro has brief encounters with men like him, mining at Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill. In Sydney, he finds his way to the fringes of homosexual society, beats in Hyde Park (the toilet block, and certain large trees), and in Newtown, the toilets in Hollis Park. It is in Hollis Park, as he is leaving the toilets —I’d hoped someone would come back to me— that he is retraumatised by the bombing.

However, when Harry and Jaro become friends, she has no inkling of his carefully hidden homosexuality, appreciating instead his courteousness: he’s such a gentleman and European sophistication. It’s not until Tom yells at her in the disco that Jaro’s a sad old poofta … he’s a fag, that she realises.

Unlike many gay men then —and up to quite recently— Jaro was never beaten up, bashed, stomped on, punched, kicked or stabbed just for being gay. Often these attacks were by gangs of men on streets leading to parks, or in the parks, regardless of whether they were actual beats.

Jaro’s friendship with Harry: meeting often at the Art Gallery, cafes and the ‘underground bar’, combined with his naturally discreet demeanour, may have protected him, acting as cover for his sexuality. Not that he was using her — he genuinely enjoyed her company — but it didn’t hurt that Harry believed Jaro was courting her.

Lock the toilets

Not one of the Guardian’s front page screamers, this was a small item, reporting a discussion at Marrickville Council on a motion “that public toilets should be closed at night to avoid any public nuisance”. I rewrote it as a prose poem.

Problems were caused by homosexuals, he said, who

frequented public toilet blocks after dark. “I don’t have 

anything against homosexuals,” Cr Broad told the Voice,

“but problems develop from their activities.” Asked what

were the problems, he declined to answer, but stressed

“We’ve got to stop these people loitering in the toilets

in the late hours of the night.” Homosexuals regularly

gathered in groups at Petersham Park, he said, and could

appear threatening to other people wishing to use the park

or its toilets. “Toilet blocks in Marrickville, Erskineville,

Enmore and Newtown are well known magnets for homosexuals.”

If this motion is passed all the public toilets ill be locked after dark.

When I moved to Newtown in 1997, all public toilets in Newtown and Victoria Park were permanently locked, day and night. The nearest available one was at Broadway shopping centre, 20 minutes walk away. I suspect the City of Sydney’s ordinance that cafes and restaurants must provide toilets for their customers was to get around the problem of permanently locked public toilets.

In 2001, I rented an apartment in Alpha House, (just round the corner from the infamous 2 Fitzroy St) and Hollis Park became my daily walk. Its toilet block was an ugly brick building fronting onto Wilson St with rusty bars and wire netting over the windows.

I didn’t take any photos of the park then, but after South Sydney Council demolished the toilets and magnificently refurbished Hollis Park, I took quite a few.

Hollis Pk corner 2006

This is a corner of Hollis Park in Warren Ball Avenue, looking across Fitzroy St to the ‘60s public housing towers over in Waterloo.
You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

 

 

KIDS GO TO SCHOOL HUNGRY

Kids hungry0002 cropped

This story from June 21, 1978, and a similar one, LATCHKEY KIDS OUT ON STREET, are clear evidence of the levels of poverty in Newtown and Marrickville in the 1970s. I combined them into one prose poem, ‘Latchkey Kids’, basically a reworking of both newspaper articles, attributing  it to the Newtown Voice.

 Unlike stories of bombings, break-ins, brothels, and gambling dens, these examples of families’ hardship and the schools and welfare organisations struggling to assist them did not rouse the Editor to thunder. No “editor’s rant” for these, nor the ones about discrimination against Aboriginal people in the community.

Talks on a feeding program

“The inner-city school of St. Peter’s is talking about setting up a feeding program. It is worried about the level of nutrition children are receiving.”

The article makes it clear that staff were reluctant to talk much about the proposed feeding program, fearing parents would be upset about the implied criticism. However, the idea had already been enthusiastically discussed at Marrickville Council, which is how the Voice got wind of it.

“Under the Schools Commission’s assisted schools scheme, St. Peter’s has already taken steps to improve student nutrition. It has installed a milkshake machine and supplies health-giving milkshakes.”

Staff admitted the children needed extra sustenance, and that giving them breakfast first made it easier to teach them.

The proposed scheme would require the canteen to be opened early so that children could have breakfast at school.

Sadly, St. Peter’s did not receive the grant funding needed to set up the feeding program. Darlington School had previously applied for a grant for the same purpose, but also did not receive funding. Teachers at Darlington were paying for children’s breakfasts out of their own pockets.

Latchkey kids copy

Three months later, almost to the day, this story on September 20, 1978 also involves children going to school hungry. This time, it’s church-run activities programs for so-called ‘latchkey kids’ after school and in the holidays.

The Petersham Baptist Church, (renamed Marrickville Baptist for poetic purposes), had been waiting since the end of May for the next tranche of funding from the Federal Minister for Social Security (Senator Guilfoyle).

The church was paying for the after-school programs itself, while waiting for a reply from the Minister, and was rapidly running into debt.

“ ‘Latchkey kids’ are children whose parents are at work all day; many come from one-parent families. Often they have house keys on a string round their necks so they can let themselves into their empty homes after school.

“Some children were also coming to school just after 7am. They had been given money to buy a packet of chips for breakfast.”

Three years earlier the church had seen the need for after-school and holiday programs for these children. [It’s possible some of them would have been in the graveyard sniffing petrol.] Nearly all of its funding was through various federal government schemes, including the recently scrapped Australian Assistance Plan.

Now, with no sign of the funding, the church was considering cancelling or at least severely slashing all its programs.

On September 13, the church’s minister wrote to Minister Guilfoyle, threatening to appeal to the Federal Ombudsman. That same day, he received a letter from the Minister, informing him that the $50,000 grant had been cancelled.

The Voice reported “the church’s small congregation has made massive efforts”—including stalls, afternoon teas, and jumble sales— “to keep the service going and keep it cheap.

“However, the church says there is no way it can continue to operate without funding, as demand for these services has mushroomed because of the area’s pressing social needs.”

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

Cathy’s Child

Not a horror headline but a glimpse of the lighter side of life in Newtown. Not all the poems in Newtown Voices are directly related to the Guardian’s front page stories. This was a small news item towards the middle of the paper that caught my eye. Cathy’s Child

Not a horror headline but a glimpse of the lighter side of life in Newtown. Not all the poems in Newtown Voices are directly related to the Guardian’s front page stories. This was a small news item towards the middle of the paper that caught my eye. Cathy’s Child was an Australian film about the true story of a Maltese mother’s efforts to get her little daughter back from Greece, where the father had taken her. Some scenes were filmed in Newtown streets and a local pub, the Carlisle Castle, reputed to be one of Sydney’s oldest pubs. In 1977, the Carlisle celebrated its centenary. In 1978 it was the venue for some crucial scenes in the film.

Carlisle Castle

The Carlisle Castle, Albermarle St, Newtown. Photo:Jon Graham & G’day Pubs

Some scenes of Cathy’s Child were shot in other parts of Sydney, but Newtown was chosen for crucial scenes because of the large numbers of Greek, Maltese, Polish and other European migrants living there, giving an “ethnic atmosphere,” as the Guardian put it. The film was directed by Donald Crombie, and based on a book by Dick Wordley who had interviewed the real Cathy Baikis. Cathy was played by relatively unknown Michelle Fawdon, who won Best Actress in a Leading Role at the AFI Awards in 1979. Also a newly rising star was 31-year-old Bryan Brown, who played The Sun’s Hot Line editor Paul Nicholson .

This little story gave me the starting point for a poem about everyday pleasures for Harry, her friend Buzz, and Tom, the deputy editor of the Voice, who fancies Harry (despite thinking her name’s stupid). The story is told by Harry.:

Buzz woke me up early this morning, throwing

two cent coins at my window. Quick, get dressed

an come down, we’re gonna watch the filming. Err,

what? I mumbled, not fully awake. The filming,

she said, impatiently, Cathy’s Child, come on, we

gotta get a good pozzie. We scooted round to

the Carlisle Castle, a couple of blocks from the

Courthouse (both the real court next to the cop

shop, and the pub.)

Both the Courthouse, known by all as the Courty or Courties, and the Carlisle Castle are still much loved local pubs, as is the Art Deco style Marlborough (the Marly), on the corner of King St and Missenden Road (and on the cover of Newtown Voices). They are the three main pubs, but as Harry says, ‘Newie’s got a pub on every corner, just about.’

After they’ve seen the small amount of filming outside the Carlisle in Albermarle St, Buzz and Harry team up with Tom, who’s finished interviewing the film’s director, and they all go round to the Courties (Tom’s favourite pub) for beer and bacon and egg rolls.

Tom told us some funny yarns about the cops and local

identities, maybe a bit slanderous, but I don’t

know any of the people he was gossiping about,

so it didn’t matter. Buzz was cackling away; being

a local, she knew just who Tom was talking about.

It was fun, the three of us, beers and bacon rolls

and a lazy winter’s morning in Newie.

Courties. (possible 1970sjpg

The Courthouse Hotel, Australia St, Newtown.
 Photo:G’day Pubs
You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me,
and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

The Graveyard

“Scores of Newtown schoolchildren have become addicted to petrol sniffing.

“Police and medical authorities have been shocked at the extent of the addiction.

Graveyard

This front page screamer from the weekly Guardian, May 24, 1978, and the story below, affected me deeply, and I hope, also moved the readers of the day. The effect was such that the poem I wrote in response to the story was a completely different style from most of the others.

“Scores of Newtown schoolchildren have become addicted to petrol sniffing.

Police and medical authorities have been shocked at the extent of the addiction.

“An appeal to all the shopkeepers in the area has been made by a distraught Newtown mother whose eleven-year-old son is getting a ‘Buzz’ from petrol sniffing.

“Many shopkeepers are unaware that children are buying lighter fluid for this purpose,” she said.

“My local fruit shop proprietor last week told me he sold my son two cans of lighter fluid in two days, and said he thought he wanted it to start a fire.

“All the time he was telling me this, I knew he knew what he really wanted it for,” she said.

“She told the GUARDIAN that there are many places where children, as young as six years old, have been meeting and getting off on “the Buzz”.

“One of the places visited by the GUARDIAN was the old graveyard at St Stephens Church, Camperdown. GUARDIAN staff were horrified to find, scattered around in a very small area, 20 Ronson Lighter Fluid cans — all empty!

“My son has been known to go through six cans a week,” she said. 

The Guardian article detailed the horrific physical and mental effects of the kids’ petrol sniffing, information I repeated in my poem, ‘The Graveyard’:

The shopkeepers know,

when the kids buy lighter fluid day after day after day. They

don’t want to see the sweating, the sores around the nose

and mouth, the terrors. They’d rather pretend the kids are

‘just kids’ out to light a few fires. 

[The reason that all cigarette lighters these days are disposable is the result of legislation passed some time in the mid 1980s mandating non-refillable lighters, specifically to tackle the problem of lighter fluid sniffing. Correct disposal and recycling of disposable lighters is an incidental and less horrific problem.]

In October 2017, I went back to visit St Stephen’s cemetery, Newtown, after an absence of five or six years. Despite regular caretaker work, many of the older graves had collapsed completely, and without these landmarks I could not find the Admiral’s wife’s grave, which I used to visit often, as a bee colony had established inside her tomb through a crack. I would watch the bees flying to and from the grave, and on warm days there’d be a delicious honey smell. I wrote about this in the opening stanza of ‘The Graveyard’ before moving to the grimmer details.

In the long grass

beneath crumbling headstones or caged

behind rusting iron fences lie grave slabs

cracked and fallen. Bees hum industriously

around the admiral’s wife’s last home,

sweet murmurings and scented flight

purposeful in the hot noon.

Caged grave

A caged grave, not yet collapsed

Sadly, I fear the Admiral’s wife’s last home has collapsed and disappeared. The bees have been given modern new hives closer to the graveyard wall. However, the giant Moreton Bay fig mentioned in the Guardian article is still growing near the church, and is believed to be about 170 years old. It has been photographed many times, including several times by me.

The Graveyard’ is one of only three poems in the verse novel that are not linked to any particular character speaking or thinking. The first is the Prologue, in which the street itself seems to express the attitudes of ‘old Australians’ to the newcomers from overseas.

Towards the end of the book, ‘What Tom doesn’t know’—like ‘The Graveyard’ — is the spirit of Newtown speaking.

 

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

The Greek Conspiracy (aka The Medicare Fraud

“Startin to think this whole multiculturalism business
isn’t as easy as politicians’d have us believe—
. . . I reckon it’s pretty tough on the migrants too. Take
this whole Greek Conspiracy shemozzle, aka the Medicare
Fraud.”

TMedicare fraud aftermath

This is a Christmas story of sorts, but a sad one. Beneath the Guardian’s screamer head for December 20, 1978 is a pic of the Salvation Army headquarters in Marrickville, blazing with Christmas lights, “a beacon for all to see.”

Towards the end of 1978, the stories Tom’s been covering for The Voice have got him thinking, reconsidering his smart-alec views about people, especially ‘wogs and dagos.’ What really brought home to him the inequality experienced by people on his patch were stories about blatant discrimination toward local Aboriginal people, and the plight of the Greek pensioners caught up in the Greek Conspiracy (aka The Medicare Fraud).

The Guardian’s headline and sub-head don’t make it immediately clear to us what the story is about, but Tom gives us the low-down in ‘The Greek Conspiracy.’ It’s obvious that whoever he’s talking to (at the Courtie’s, as usual), knows next-to-nothing about the Medicare Fraud. Basically, back in April that year hundreds of elderly Greek migrants were arrested and taken to court, accused of defrauding Medicare with spurious health problems, and they and many other Greek migrants had their pensions stopped.

The Guardian’s article is not about the so-called conspiracy and the arrests and convictions—of 181 arrested and tried, only four were found guilty of defrauding the Commonwealth, and three of them actually pleaded guilty! But the government continued harassing many more elderly Greek people it considered were part of ‘the conspiracy.’

What the Guardian article does cover is the staunch advocacy and efforts of community welfare agencies to get conspiracy charges dropped and compensation paid to the wrongly accused. Tom is dubious about the likelihood of compensation being paid, but has sympathy for the people swept up in the raids.

Startin to think this whole multiculturalism business

isn’t as easy as politicians’d have us believe—

. . . I reckon it’s pretty tough on the migrants too. Take

This whole Greek Conspiracy shemozzle, aka the Medicare

Fraud.

In dawn raids, the Commonwealth cops entered 160 homes and five

doctors’ surgeries an arrested 181 Greek pensioners,

an chucked em in the cells.

700 people on Social

Security had their benefits taken away and their

Payments stopped without any warnin. Not a good time

to be a Greek, specially a pensioner! Well that was eight

months ago, an now it’s nearly Christmas. 

. . . so many of the poor buggers’re struggling to live,

pay rent, buy groceries. A few of them

have actually dropped dead or killed themselves from the stress.

An there’s plenty who dunno how they’re gonna buy Christmas

presents for their kiddies. Seems like they haven’t had a fair go

We’ll hear more about local community welfare groups and social services in other posts. Life in Newtown 40 years ago wasn’t easy for anyone except the ‘big boys’ running gambling clubs, brothels, and other illegal activities.

But for the small fry: the poor, the single mums, the latchkey kids, the homeless, the ‘abos,’ and the ‘wogs’ and ‘dagos’ life was a daily struggle.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

Yellowcake!

Radioactive Convoys

Sydney’s Inner West residents are familiar with the colourful mural fronting the Crescent at the foot of Johnston St. Annandale, opposite Rozelle Bay. Among the local events and characters commemorated in the quirky sketches is a reference to the mysterious and highly dangerous night-time transport of uranium yellowcake from the Lucas Heights reactor through the streets of the Inner West to White Bay. Although the mural was repainted in the 1980s and political slogans referring to the 1975 sacking of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam by the Governor-General, John Kerr were painted over, a reference to the yellowcake protests was included in the new work.

 

Ban Yellowcake

The front page screamer in the weekly Guardian of July 12, 1978 was the first most residents of Newtown and Marrickville knew of the midnight yellowcake convoys, although political activists in Annandale had been actively protesting them a year earlier.

Yellowcake powder is an intermediate form of  uranium, produced from crude ore, but needing further processing to be suitable as nuclear fuel. The yellowcake transported secretly through Inner West streets to the White Bay  container terminal to be shipped overseas was produced at the Lucas Heights reactor near Sutherland.

“Convoys of yellowcake have been racing through Marrickville streets early in the morning. But nobody knows anything about it.

Neither the Marrickville Council, nor the Newtown police have been told.”

“If there should be an accident involving yellowcake, there is no organisation to cope with it.

“Newtown police say they would get in touch with Marrickville Council. “However Marrickville Council officially knows nothing at all about the shipment.

“Its workers have received no training in handling a substance like yellowcake, and the council has no protective clothing for them.

“Shire Engineer, Mr Bob White says an accident would be the responsibility of the State Emergency Service, which would initially call on council trucks and workmen.

“The State Emergency Service has an office in Newtown Town Hall — but it is hardly ever used.

“So far there have been seven convoys of 15 trucks, each convoy carrying up to 2000 tonnes of yellowcake. They travel through heavily populated suburbs of the municipality.”

In ‘Yellowcake’ we hear about the midnight convoys from Tom, chatting over a beer at The Courties (Courthouse Hotel):

…real cloak an dagger stuff: convoys of

radioactive uranium yellowcake racing

along narrow Newtown an Marrickville

streets before dawn, with no-one know-

ing a thing about it.

‘…I could just see a bunch a hoons in a hot

wired car runnin a red light an crashin

into one of those convoys—huge pileup—

radioactive dust flyin every-bloody-where.

Contamination of a nation—

The Guardian’s editor wrote a strong comment about the lack of information surrounding these mysterious convoys, and the unknown levels of danger they danger they flirted with.

. . . Nobody is willing to admit responsibility for the uranium convoys racing through Marrickville streets late at night;

Nobody knows what will happen if there is an accident.

All three levels of government simply refer enquiries

back to each other. It’s like an endless piece of string.

What happens when that string breaks? Nobody knows.

 

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

Life wasn’t meant to be easy

PEOPLE KICKED OUT OF HOMES
While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty

Kicked out of homes

Once again, a screamer headline across the front page of the weekly Guardian, this time on October 25, 1978, teamed with an incongruous photo of a Surf Rescue speedboat breasting the waves at Bondi, (a piece of advertorial)

No houses for the poor

Steep rise in rent cost

“While people sleep in the streets, government migrant flats have been standing empty for up to three years.

 “The Marrickville area has one of the highest percentages of people looking for emergency housing in the State.

 “According to a recent survey, 40 family groups, involving nearly 100 people sought emergency housing within a month.”

The Guardian estimated that “one and a half percent of the Marrickville population —a third more than the State average” was homeless. It quoted the NSW homeless organisation Shelter, that

“people are now sleeping in cars and parks —as in the 1930’s depression. Meanwhile government flats at Annandale and Marrickville are standing vacant.”

This story, and several others about poverty, homelessness and evictions— especially ones related to Sydney University’s expansion beyond its 1860s City Road site —led me to put much of this material in Buzz’s voice, in ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy.’

If you haven’t met Buzz yet, she’s a social justice warrior who lives in an anarchist squat and teaches car maintenance at WEA (Workers Education Association). She’s very outspoken about the injustices she sees around her, and frequently quotes items she‘s read in the Newtown Voice.

“Life wasn’t meant to be easy” was a famous quote in 1971 by Australian Federal Liberal Party leader (later Prime Minister)  Malcolm Fraser. A wealthy grazier and powerful politician, his quote was resented by ordinary Australians  who understood it to mean “stop complaining about your lot.”  Buzz wasn’t going to take that lying down!

Jeez, Harry, when Malcolm Fraser told us

life wasn’t meant to be easy—the smug

patronisin bastard—I didn’t think it was

gunna get this bloody tough.

… Seems like things are almost as

bad as in the Depression, specially in

Newie an Marrickville. Welfare groups say

lotsa people are sleepin in parks an cars.

An guess what? Accordin to The Voice

there’s plenty of places empty that are

owned by the government—blocksa flats

for migrants in Marrickville and Annandale,

But never been used. Jeez, Harry, I dunno,

where’s this country goin? What happened

to the lucky country? To a fair go for every

one? I reckon we need a bloody revolution!

An I mean Bloody!

Sadly, many of the issues that affected people in 1978 have come around again.

Buzz has some strong words to say about Sydney Uni’s relentless expansion beyond City Road into surrounding streets, and the added effect of students sharehousing on the shortage of affordable housing in the area. I’ll cover the Uni effect in later posts.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

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