After the Tram experience, blue sky was peeking through the clouds. I spent a few hours ambling along Hunter Street Mall, straining my neck in an attempt to see everything; the obvious and also that which I have never before noticed. Beginning at Customs House, I strolled through the Convict Lumberyard, remembering the school project I did wherein I took photos of historical points of interest in Newcastle. The point of the whole assignment escapes me.
The information signs scattered around Scott Street and the entrance to the Mall looked a little sorry for themselves and I wondered how often people stop to read them. The text was painfully small and some colour wouldn’t go astray.
I stopped to admire Tyrrell House, which was built in 1925 by the Anglican Diocese for use as their offices (it is now merely one of the many apartment buildings in the CBD), before turning away from the beach.
I’ve always liked the Mall, but in my teenage years it was neglected in favour of the shine and size of Westfield Kotara and Charlestown Square. Besides, until recently, there really wasn’t much to visit. Owing in large part to the Renew Newcastle campaign, the Mall is saying goodbye to its previous lacklustre.
I stopped for a late breakfast at One Penny Black. The baristas were unbearably cute and demurely hip in their assorted hats, Hawaiian shirts and canvas shoes. My server smiled self-consciously as I approached the bench to order. My coffee was beautifully extracted and blended to perfection, and I sat admiring the mismatched decor, odd array of objects and carefully chosen display books (How to Eat Like a Man, etc). A few years ago, I never would have dined alone in a cafe. Now, I do it often. It’s a liberating experience – I can be as moody, sombre or cheerful as I like.
Next, I explored the small arcade housing Go-Lo and Rivers. I noticed a small sign pointing up the escalator: “Food Court”, and chuckled under my breath, doubting the existence of such a thing. Ascending said escalator, I was taken aback. There was a food court, albeit a small one with no patronage despite it being lunch hour in the city. I looked at the empty tables – the bright red Oak sign (ah, memories); the ‘Olympia’ health food kiosk (which looked as if it had closed ten years ago) and the sorry-looking kebab shop in the far corner – and felt a sadness creeping up my spine. How many important businessmen and women forego this ‘food court’ for Subway, Gloria Jeans and Oporto nearby? As Vanessa Berry says: “Hell is a string of chain stores”. I almost felt compelled to order a milkshake from the middle-aged woman behind the Oak counter – who, in my mind, was reaching towards me longingly, a tear rolling down her plump cheek.
Out the front of Jo Dyer’s new store Little Papercup, selling crafty, papery goods and artwork, an elderly gentleman accosted me. He asked, with more than a hint of desperation: “Are there any bookshops around?” Without thinking, I replied that there was an Angus and Robertson outlet nearby.
“They’ve told me it’s bloody closed down. I’m stuck here for the day and I just want a book to read.
“Oh,” I replied, thinking fast. “You could try the newsagency?” He grunted and shuffled away. It didn’t occur to me until later that I could have recommended one of the myriad of second-hand book stores further along Hunter St. Old man, wherever you are, I am deeply sorry for my sluggish brain. I hope you found something to read.
Strolling further along the Mall, I resisted the temptation to enter the Wanted Shoes factory outlet and arrived at the Crown and Anchor, pausing to visit the Sushi Koo kiosk, and to reminisce.
Suddenly, it is July, 2007, and I am sitting outside the 7/11 with my best friend, sculling the last of our vodka Ruski. A police car cruises past and the driver leans out the window. We hastily try to hide the offending bottle but he grins at us, winking and giving us a ‘thumbs up’. It was my first ever night in Town and it started at the Crown and Anchor’s top-level club: Frostbites, where the dance floor was slippery and the frozen cocktails were dispensed from colourful containers on the wall. That same year, C&A was ranked 9th out of 100 of the most violent pubs in NSW. They worked to clean up their act, serving alcohol in plastic cups past 8pm and “practising RSA” (a vague assertion, at best), but sadly, C&A has become one of many pubs/clubs to close down in Newcastle.
I turned left at Perkins Street and stopped in front of an ancient theatre building which – inexplicably – I have never noticed before. The ground-level is decorated by a fantastic black-and-white mural of people and faces that appeared to stare at me as I walked to and fro. I later found out that this was the Victoria Theatre; opened in 1876 and rebuilt in 1891 and 1921. The description is quite grand: interior dress circles, fly towers, dressing rooms, foyer – and most is apparently intact within the decaying facade. The original theatre itself closed in 1966 but over time the building has been used as a theatre, first-class hotel, Hoyts cinema and retail outlet before becoming vacant in 1997. I lingered at the doors for what must have seemed a suspicious amount of time; fascination married with fear. My imagination took over and I envisioned a building rich with hauntings and strange occurrences. The smell of ‘old’ emanated through the cracks in the boarded up windows and goosebumps appeared on my arms. I moved on.
Later, I became obsessed with the idea of ghosts in Newcastle. It’s an obvious thought, given the age of this city and all its convict-flogging history, but I’ve never fully indulged in the idea, despite the odd half-baked remark: “Yeah, the Great Northern Hotel, it’s definitely haunted.” Thanks to my friend google, I was surprised to find out that Newcastle now has its very own Ghost Tour (established 2010). Alas, none of the alleged ghost stories I found were particularly juicy. Here are some links, if you are so inclined to satisfy your paranormal curiosities.:
I circled onto the oft-overlooked King Street, which boasts the only remaining movie theatre in Newcastle’s CBD: Greater Union ‘Tower’ cinemas. The smell of popcorn wafted out as I passed the empty foyer. It’s sad, really, that the Newcastle cinema is not more popular: it has fantastic facilities, including two candy bars – one of which has been closed for years – and huge theatres playing the kinds of arthouse movies that don’t appeal to the under-cultured masses.
To arrive back on Hunter Street, I turned left at Govinda’s restaurant. I have never walked under the underpass near the former Showcase Theatre. I’m always stilled by fear walking down those steps, and resort to circling around parked cars on the street. I imagine being attacked by a swarm of rats, a face appearing at one of the grimy windows, an invisible hand reaching out and sweeping me into the abandoned building. Hauled into the alleyway and never seen again. But I braved it. A thrilling experience, to say the least.
People in my city are lovely. I was greeted cheerily everywhere, strangers smiled at me as I passed them on the street and I felt myself understanding the common assertion that “all Australians are nice!” Not that I’ve ever doubted the friendliness of my countrymen, but that day was memorable. Perhaps it was the warmth of the sun, or maybe just that I was in a deliriously pleasant mood and subconsciously blocked all bad thoughts floating towards my aura. As I strolled past Coffee on Crown, a young waiter grinned and inquired as to my wellbeing. We had one of those awkwardly polite but enjoyable conversations-in-passing, like the ones we often have with people we know but with whom we don’t necessarily want to stop and chat.
“Hi! How are you?” Without breaking stride.
“Good thanks! And you?” Continuing past each other, smiling bashfully.
“Good thanks! See ya!” By this point you are at least five metres away, walking in opposite directions and craning your necks awkwardly, in danger of running headlong into an innocent passerby, or pole.
“Yep. Bye!” Conversation is complete.
You know what I’m talking about. In any case, it was fun and I continued on my adventures with a new sense of wellbeing. A smile really can go a long way. Too often we pass each other with our eyes cast low and a crease between our brows. As Mother Theresa once said “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
Apologies for the spiel: my alter ego, The Novocastrian Hippie, is rearing its dreadlocked head. Peace, man, I’m off to the Happy Herb Shop.