On Hunter Street Mall and Memory

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.

One Penny Black, Hunter Street Mall

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.

A wall inside Little Papercup, Hunter Street Mall

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.

Victoria Theatre, Perkins Street

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.:

http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2007/09/28/2046364.htm

http://www.ghoststories.com.au/ghost-stories-articles/2007/11/24/hunters-most-popular-haunts/

http://www.yourghoststories.com/real-ghost-story.php?story=1732

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.

The Dreaded Underpass

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.

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On Newcastle’s Famous Tram and Disappointment

I decided to start my “official” Newcastle adventures – as opposed to my run-of-the-mill Newcastle days – with a one-hour tour aboard Newcastle’s Famous Tram.  My decision was not entirely impromptu; I had read about the tram in the dated NSW Lonely Planet guide book, borrowed from the City Library.  “That certainly doesn’t exist anymore,” I scoffed, shaking my head in bemusement, “I’ve lived here twenty-two years and have never seen such a thing!”  A quick Google search later in the afternoon revealed that the Newcastle Tram has been running since 1994 and is indeed still running; it was built from scratch as a genuine replica of the Tram in service in Newcastle in 1923.

As I waited in the drizzling rain for the 11:00am Tram outside Newcastle Station on Hunter Street, I studied my fellow tourists.  A woman wearing pearls and a bright, rainbow cardigan with matching shoes, holding a small, blonde-haired boy; a lonely-looking woman clutching a bottle of diet coke as if her life depended on it, and a wholesome, elderly couple.  I was pleased with the rather eclectic mix of travellers.  I had harboured a feeling of dread that morning at potentially being the sole traveller to board the Tram: how many straggling visitors could our city hope to scrape together for a Tuesday morning tour in late August?

With glee, I listened to the Customs House clock chime eleven times, just as the Tram rounded the corner from Scott Street.  Talk about punctual!  I paid my $15 – “Good on ya!” exclaimed Lance the driver – and sat next to the window on one of the hard, wooden seats, suddenly elated and eager to begin the journey.

I looked out the window and watched two young female backpackers alight from a train, whispering together and lighting hand-rolled cigarettes.  They each carried no less than three bags, in addition to their cumbersome backpacks.  It’s not unusual to see backpackers loitering around the train station, bleary-eyed and stumbling towards the harbour like zombies.  I have only boarded a train once at Newcastle Station, about three years ago at 3am, munching Red Rock chips, slightly inebriated, on my way to a friend’s house in Toronto.  After the brutal murder on the train the other day, I certainly won’t be doing that again.  This story was the first to be told by our Tram guide.  He shook his head and commented on the ‘youth of today’: “In my day if we mucked up around town, the cops would threaten to tell the old man on us, or just give us a kick up the backside and send us on our way… different world today.”

My fellow passengers entered this discussion with elevated vigour.  “Drugs.” One woman stated seriously.  “No parental control!” Exclaimed the man in the back row.  As the only young person on the Tram (not counting the toddler), I sunk into my seat, feeling personally responsible for the idiocy of teenagers in my city.  Guilt flooded through me and I half expected somebody to start lecturing me on safe sex; I felt so ashamedly young.  Then I realised – with sudden horror – that perhaps these middle-aged passengers viewed me as equal; that perhaps I no longer look youthful enough to fall within the category of “the youth of today”.

During the first five minutes of the tour, I found myself wishing that I could stay on the Tram, going round and round the city all day, much like a child on a merry-go-round.  Perhaps I was just excited to be a Tourist in my Own Town.

As we drove along Wharf Road, Lance began a long and well-rehearsed speech.  Newcastle is the busiest harbour in the world (!!), exporting 108 million tonnes of coal in 2010.  We drove past Argyle House, which was purpose-built to house the headquarters of the Australian Agricultural Company in early 1826.  Such humble beginnings, before it became The Seediest Nightspot in Newcastle.  If I was driving the Tram, I would have mentioned fun facts about Fanny’s, such as its notorious sticky floor, scantily clad youths and high ratings of violence in the city.  And also, apparently, it’s popularity with reptiles.

After travelling along Honeysuckle and hearing about the $100 million funding from the State Government for the Development Project, we drove to Nobby’s Beach.  Newcastle was discovered entirely by accident in 1797, as Lieutenant John Shortland was chasing convicts who had escaped from Sydney Cove.  In 1814, one thousand convicts carved a track to Newcastle from Sydney, which put Newcastle on the map … kind of.  Those trusty convicts also joined Nobby’s (which used to be an island) to the mainland – a feat which at the time cost more money than building the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

At the beach, we were allowed some time to take photos of the Pasha Bulker’s rudder, which has been concreted into the pavement near the kiosk.  Lance passed around some photos of the Pasha when it ran aground at Nobby’s in June, 2007, and chattered endlessly about the month-long wave of tourism that swept the city: the traffic jams, the t-shirts, the business the guy in the kiosk must have been getting.

On the Tram, I learned more than I had initially known about Newcastle and its origins.  More than I will divulge here – I don’t want to ruin it for you.  But for some reason, I was underwhelmed by the tour itself.  Perhaps I would have been more enthralled had I been looking at the sights with fresh eyes.  Perhaps it was more difficult than I had originally thought, stepping outside myself and pretending to be a tourist.  How much of what I had already known of the city thwarted any chance of hearing the information with non-prejudiced ears?  Maybe it was just the rain.  My mood is oftentimes affected by the weather.  In any case, I still love Newcastle, even if its fake transport system leaves something to be desired.

Nobby's Beach; The Pasha Bulker's rudder

On Place, Identity and Being Novocastrian

The Post Office, Hunter Street

In the last few years, I have had ample opportunity to leave Newcastle.  My partner moved to Sydney two years ago; my closest friends are gravitating to the far corners of the Earth – Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, London, Canada.  It’s hard to watch them go, one by one, like petals from a dying flower.  I understand it, I’ve been there.  When I finished high school and started Uni, I yearned to leave Newcastle but I stayed to finish my degree, travelling overseas and gallivanting around Australia during every spare moment.  I always thought I’d be the first to leave, permanently.  From the age of ten, my parents and teachers conspired to send me overseas for further ballet training.  Recently, I’ve gone so far as to apply for – and was accepted into – several Masters programs in the UK.  And yet here I am.

In the moment of truth, I have shied away from the chance to broaden my horizons in a more permanent sense.  Don’t misunderstand me; I’m no rural homebody.  I’m sufficiently well-travelled for someone my age and have romantic visions of traipsing unknown country sides, free of the confines of a place to call Home.  Maybe I’m just not ready to leave.  I have found myself attached to Newcastle, like a foetus to the womb.

I didn’t always feel this way about Newcastle.

As a child, I distinctly remember telling people I was born in Nelson Bay.  I spent some time at the Bay during my early years; Mum worked there.  But I never lived there, nor even stayed for a considerable length of time.  I certainly wasn’t born there.  Why did I say that?  Was I trying to assert a presence in my peer group with incidental and frankly untruthful facts?  Was I embarrassed of my home town?  Certainly not; I was indifferent to Newcastle, as I assume most children are.  Living here was an irrelevant fact.  Perhaps I just wanted to be different.

In my first year of high school, I could be heard divulging to close friends that I “lived in England for a time”.  Which was basically an exotic way of saying that I visited England when I was twelve and we lived in a small cottage for a little over one month.  I was no attention seeker; I wasn’t vying for the affections of male suitors (in fact, I was hideously shy and asexual until the age of fifteen).  I was content here, yet some insecurity prevented me from embracing my birth right as a Novocastrian.  I took for granted our beauty and decay.

There I go again, using inclusive language – Newcastle belongs to me.  During his meditation on growing up in Newcastle, Mark Mordue claims that he feels like part of a “secret society” of Novocastrians, because it’s a “small-enough, big-enough place” to still maintain a twisted sense of intimacy; “even those that are really strangers are somehow familiars deep inside.”

My days of dabbling in exoticism are over; I have given up my tendency to prevaricate on the issue of my living arrangements.  During my travels through America this year, I could be heard emphatically claiming “Newcastle” when asked from where in Australia we were visiting.  Previously, I would have hesitated – they won’t have heard of such a place!  Each time we were asked, my partner replied “Sydney” with confidence; they smiled in appreciation, but I stared at him in horror.  He lives in the big city now, but does he have no loyalty to his roots?  I am proud to be a Novocastrian.  I think we’re awesome.  Like Mark, we should feel sorry for those born in Sydney.

I often forget that both my parents are from Sydney.  I am first-generation Novocastrian.  The Sydney of my childhood meant driving over the Harbour Bridge, trying to catch glimpses of the Opera House in its innocent, stark beauty.  The sparkling blue water that looked prettier and yet more threatening than the ocean in Newcastle.  In my mind, the Harbour harboured sharks and dead bodies and all manner of evil.  The only places to visit were the Opera House for ballet performances and the sprawling green of the UNSW campus for annual City of Sydney eisteddfods.  In my mind, visiting family in Engadine was not a Trip To Sydney.  Little distinguished their suburb from mine, two hours north.  The house in which my cousins lived was not flanked by tall office buildings; the honk of car horns was not part of the background noise.  As far as I was concerned, they didn’t live in The Big City.  Such was the limitation of my version of Sydney.

And yet I saw Sydney in my future.  As Mark says, “In Newcastle, we invented Sydney”.  When I was a teenager, I re-imagined Sydney as a place that would swallow me whole as soon as I was old enough to live out of home.  I saw myself as just another face in the crowd, gobbled by the corporate machine in my pencil skirt and pantyhose.  I imagined my life turning out the way I have since learned to dread; but for some strange reason, I accepted this fate as if it had already happened.  As if I had no choice.  Now, I realise that I do have a choice.  Sydney does not equal freedom, as it does for many of my friends.

‘Newcastle is a city with small-town charm’ is a phrase I’ve heard and read often.  This is the seventh largest and second oldest city in Australia, and yet I never know whether to call my home a City or a Town.  In Sydney, I party in the City.  In Newcastle, we go into Town.  What defines a city?  More high-rises and skyscrapers than we have here?  Less of the “laid-back” charm for which we’ve become famous?  We joke about the connectedness of our population – one degree of separation.  But is the divide between city and town aesthetic or emotional?  To me, a city is a big place, and Newcastle doesn’t feel very big.  A city is New York.  A city is London.  A city is Sydney.  Is my lack of confidence in Newcastle as a City borne from the prevalent belief that there are bigger, better things out there in other bigger, better places?  City or Town … does it even matter?

These days, I spend a portion of my week in Sydney.  Usually, I wander the streets with my head held high, relishing being one in a million; a nobody in the crowd.  It provides some relief from Newcastle, where it’s impossible to do anything or go anywhere without seeing a familiar face.  On those days of quiet elation in Sydney, I can imagine my life in the big city.  It doesn’t seem all that bad.  The Sydney of my youth and adolescence was imagined; limited in reality.  I realise now that I wouldn’t have to work in a cubicle, or wear high heels every day.  Maybe I am ready … maybe.  Mark notes that this is what Sydney does to those of us in Newcastle: “Call us and corrupt us by letting us know another world exists, even if what we receive of that world is skewed and re-imagined through who we already are.”  More often than not, my confidence shatters and I realise Sydney is too big for me – no one makes eye contact and no one knows me and for some reason, it’s suffocating.  Dizzying.  My train snakes back across the Hawkesbury River’s haunting, calm waters and I breathe a sigh of relief.  I’m going Home.

Elena Gomez says, of Brisbane, “I felt like I was betraying the city I’d grown up in by not having any fondness for it.”  In my formative years I have ridiculed Newcastle’s small-town mentality and nodded in agreement when friends have said, ‘There’s nothing for me there; nothing ever changes; it’s boring.’  Every time I concur with the opinions of Novocastrian expatriates, I feel a pang of guilt, as if I’m betraying my identity with my lack of compassion for Newcastle’s relatively stagnant streets.  Yet the thrill of change still grabs me by the throat whenever a building is transformed, a cafe on Darby Street redecorated or renamed.  I relish change, and at the same time I want to keep this city locked in my memory, so that I’m safe to leave and then return with the knowledge that everything will remain the same.  Newcastle in a sea-shell to hold to my ear.

 I remember returning home from a stint in one of Oxford University’s oldest colleges and expecting nothing to have changed in my hometown; nothing ever did.  At the same time, some part of me expected Newcastle to have been turned upside down in my absence, undergoing a transformation of identity, akin to the one I experienced overseas.  On my first day back, I was driving over the train line at Broadmeadow when one of the billboards drew my attention.  It advertised the “biggest KFC in Australia” to be built on Hunter Street, in lieu of what was once the historic Palais Theatre.  Here, I could quote Elena: “oh, the banality”, and yet it didn’t apply at the time.  My reaction was angry; I feared for the life of my city.  I suddenly appreciated the empty shop fronts and run-down buildings on Hunter Street; those which I had so often scorned and overlooked.  I used to be ashamed of the urban decay.  Now, I dread the day that Indigo Books becomes the Largest McDonalds In The Southern Hemisphere.  Heaven forbid that The Rock Shop is transformed into a Coles Express.

 Rachel Du Plessis examines that writing an essay is borne from the “need to examine opinions and contradictions and to interrogate cultural materials, especially those taken for granted.”  Newcastle is the cultural material which has been taken for granted in my twenty-two years of living here.  I’ve come to realise that although I’m Novocastrian by right of birth, I feel like an impostor for not truly knowing my city, for not examining it.  For not living the local.  I guess that is why I have previously turned my back, searching for myself in other places, wracked with guilt.

I’m constantly hearing stories of people moving back to Newcastle, after years or decades living elsewhere.  Maybe when we’re young and naive, this place is too small.  We migrate back after spreading our wings.  As Sarah-Jane Norman meditates, “this is the price of escape; you might be able to fight your way out of a physical space, but you can expect the ghost of that space to follow you around for a long time afterwards.”  A 2008 study of rural Australian adolescents revealed the inherent relationship between place and identity: “the physical environment is thought to be incorporated into one’s self concept via integration between the self and place that leads to feelings of belonging.”  Perhaps my real insecurity is belonging – do I?

If “belonging is an active feeling of a bond, implying emotional attachment and therefore developing loyalty to something belonged to” (Gasparini), then I do belong in Newcastle.  I am loyal, I defend this place when people speak ill.  If this loyalty implies a sense of community, and a sense of community in turn provides an anchor to identity, then I am a Novocastrian.  Although I once yearned to leave, I always knew I would be back one day.  I feel it in my bones.  The beach’s crashing waves echoing in my chest like a drum; a heartbeat.  Does that make me a true Novocastrian?

Du Plessis also likens the idea of contemporary essay, or “social autobiography”, to a “coming out story”; an engagement with social space and personal history providing a kind of freedom or liberation that is “sometimes enlivening, sometimes enervating”.  So it is with my relationship with Newcastle: it’s coming out of the closet.  I am “coming out” by recognising my city online, for all to see, engaging in meditative writing and physical exploration.  A pilgrimage, of sorts, searching for the root of my identity.  I’ve become obsessed with discovering and embracing the umbilical cord tying me to this place – my home.

Like Elena embarked on a literary journey to rediscover her home town of Brisbane, I too have a journey to undertake.  Given Newcastle’s recent recognition by Lonely Planet as one of the Top 10 Best Cities to Visit in 2011, I decided to embark on a tourist’s journey, of the traditional sense, consulting guide books and websites in order to discover a visitor’s version of Newcastle.  I have tried to step out of my local shoes and view the sights with naked eyes.  It’s been challenging; each site holds attached stigma in the form of a memory, from childhood or adolescence.  During my metaphorical travels, I have found myself marrying a newfound appreciation for my city with the skewed pride of place that’s permeated my life thus far.

I don’t pretend for this journey to be a complete one, it is “an examination that is endless; the materials and possibilities outrun any finality.”  I don’t pretend to finish this pilgrimage enlightened, or an expert on Newcastle.  I will always be seeing and learning and living; evolving just like the city in which I live.

Crown Street, Newcastle

Introductory Post

As stated in the Why? tab, this blog forms part of my work for English (Creative Writing) Honours.  The first three posts are in personal essayistic style and will be graded by my lecturer.  Beyond that, freedom reigns.  I plan to explore Newcastle as any self-respecting tourist would (or, rather, should) and report on my findings, muse about the city and its history, inform myself (and others) of worthy local events/stores/cafes/awesomeness.

The first post (following this one) is an explanation of the project and my meditative reasoning that informed the whole idea: why I am here, why I used to hate Newcastle, why I love Newcastle, why don’t I have the courage to leave?  Basically, all the emotional stuff.  From there, the second  post transgresses into the start of my physical exploration of Newcastle.  I took a ride on Newcastle’s Famous Tram and explored Hunter Street Mall in depth.  Given the word limit of my University assignment, the second and third posts have been condensed from their original version.  After the grading from my lecturer, I will post the originals.

And so it begins…

The breakwall, Nobby's