I’m embarking on a bout of domestic reminiscence.
From 1985 to 1986 I lived in an unpreposessing house at the foot of Georgina Street, Newtown. Then it was white, and shortly after I moved in was graffitied on the parkside wall with the legend “The Widowed Isis” and an Illuminati-style triangle. I believe TWI was a band.
Georgina Street, which served as a proxy for Victoria St in the early 80s film Heatwave (with Judy Davis as, very loosely speaking, the Juanita Nielsen character) was then in the process of gentrification. Many of the houses were still divided into single rooms, although things had come a long way already from the 1960s, when it apparently was a centre of aboriginal housing, and, or so my google-booking tells me, known as Georgina Street mission. Part of the film was actually made in the house, as the Judy-Davis character’s home.
I lived there as a lodger. I paid about $40 or $45 a week. My landlord, Rxx, had bought the house about a year earlier and was doing it up. Mine was the front bedroom, which had a kind of louvred-French door at the side:
Rxx was involved in the Gay Counselling Service and the associated gay co-operatively run gym, Fitness Exchange.
From time to time there were gatherings associated with these groups at his house. I was a bit over-awed by the crowd who turned up. My own sexual position was decidedly undecided, though I did have quite bright Telefunken-blue hair which had to be re-dyed every few weeks. I was free to do this at the time as I was doing a PhD in history and was beholden to no employer – though I drove taxis from Newtown base most Saturday nights.
These were the early and most terrifying (for gay people in Australia anyway) days of the AIDS epidemic as the disease cut its first swathe through those who had been boldest in entering into the gay life in the 70s and early 80s. Rxx got involved in Ankali, and in commissioning a special song to be sung at AIDS funerals. Some nights each week, QQ, an Anglican curate, would come to stay with us and lead his other, Newtown and gay, life at an anonymous distance from his parish. These were the early years of the Newtown Hotel. QQ subsequently died, I am reasonably sure, of AIDS.
A few doors up in Georgina Street, H, a gay City of Sydney alderman (also later to die) lived. H was politically allied with the young Frank Sartor. Sartor doorknocked me once seeking support for “Neighbourhood Watch” and took it quite politely that when I expressed a basic reluctance to be involved with the police in dobbing my neighbours in. H’s partner, G (who is still, Casaubon-like, compiling a dictionary of sexual slang) had his own private quasi-professorial office in the enormous first-floor drawing room. That was (and still is) in one of the terraces in the imposing row on Georgina Street itself, to which this picture doesn’t do justice:
Warren Ball Avenue, on the northern side of Hollis Park, had and still has even grander houses:
Further up, Georgina Street had and still has a synagogue, though it keep a pretty low profile.
Oddly enough, some friends of mine moved into a house a couple of doors up from the synagogue which had apparently been lived in by sun-worshippers – Zoroastrans, perhaps – who had left the house full of gold-painted bricks. Just opposite the top of the street in the old was the famous “Maurice’s,” the the first eatery on King Street when you came from the university and much favoured by student groups, occupying the ground floor of the now-restored Trocadero. A mainstay for my sustenance, it was presided over by the eponymous Maurice, a very courtly gentleman, I think a Maronite rather than a Muslim. His rather gorgeous (and we all thought, surely gay) son occasionally helped out, as well, of course, as his wife and other female family members.
The street has since been closed off at the King Street end, and a tree planted in the middle.
The gates date from the original subdivision.
The neighbouring house was divided into two or three bedsits or even, perhaps, bedrooms with shared facilities. The front room was occupied by a ZZ, a bottle-burgundy-haired woman with a hopeless-looking son who sometimes turned up – looking fairly heroin-addled though his afflictions may have been more psychiatric than that. Rxx told me that ZZ had prevailed upon the council workmen who in those days had a shed in Hollis Park (since demolished) to paint her room on council time in exchange for some kind of payment on the side. She would get on the turps at which stage abuse would start to fly fairly indiscriminately, including to the man, XX, who lived in one of the back rooms of the house and with whom she lived in a kind of symbiosis. I still remember her yelling once at him “Everybody knows that you shit yourself!” Undoubtedly if that was true she knew it because she washed his underpants for him. I also remember her yelling and muttering “He’s a fucking cat!” – referring to Rxx’s sexuality. This was not a term I had heard before with this meaning.
ZZ was also a bit of a cat-lady and fed innumerable strays. Consequently we had an infestation of cats, including one particularly tough ginger tom and another smaller (and, necessarily, female) tortoise-shell cat. These got into the roof and house because of the disrepair in the eaves and rafters. This is when I learnt a sad lesson in life.
Rxx decided it was time to get rid of the (feline) cats. He got the official cat-trap from the RSPCA, and steps were taken to catch them. The first to be caught was the tortoise shell. But for her fertility, she wouldn’t have even been a problem. I’m bound to confess that I caught her myself with ease. Rxx took her away to the gas chambers of Yagoona. Catching the tom, by comparison, was a truly terrifying experience. We cornered it in a room when it had come into the house, and I remember it literally running up the walls to escape before Rxx finally bagged it. It could quite easily have taken out my eye, or so I felt and feared. It ended up making its escape in Centennial Park when Rxx was taking it to a less regular end (Yagoona was just too far away).
I feel terrible about this still. In life and expecially in any conflict, retribution comes first to the weakest and mildest rather than those who most deserve or provoke it. The softies suffer first.
The house really was quite unrestored. There was one room – the dining room or third bedroom, which was basically full of lumber of one sort or another, and in which at one stage we caught a couple of very large rats. The kitchen had a genuine Early Kooka and no hot water. The only hot water was above the bath in the bathroom – a “rocket” heater which you had to light manually with matches whenever you wanted hot water. It is easy to forget how primitive many houses still were in the Newtown area at this time. Rxx washed his clothes by soaking them in the bath. I used the laundromat up on King Street.
A large post-Christmas party was my undoing. I had cooked Christmas pudding, and as the party went on, I was running the hot water continuously in the bath to get the suety remains off the plates. This was too much for the rocket-heater, which caught fire. For the next week or so (it was the holiday season) until a new (second hand) heater was found, we had no hot water. Rxx showered at Bill Hunt’s place, and I at a bed-sit occupied by the then-young poet, Chris Burns (whom Neil will possibly recall), in the end terrace of the big row.
Rxx didn’t directly reproach me for the fire (or maybe I was just too young to notice), but after that things were never quite the same. A few months later (by which time, having promised not to have blue hair, I had taken a job as a teacher) Rxx asked me to move out so that he could progress the renovations. Quite kindly, he let me leave my possessions in the house as I first went and stayed with a colleague closer to the school where I was working. Eventually, having prolonged that stay for rather longer than I should have, I rented in my own name a more humble two-up-two-down workman’s terrace in Bailey Street, Newtown.