The good old days


I should have been working – fascinating as they are, those annual reports won’t edit themselves. But I just couldn’t. It was gorgeous outside and I couldn’t focus on anything.

I’ve been trying to catch up with Peter Murray, the author of a history of Hamilton called From Borehole to Hamilton Jubilee, 1848–1925. I finally got his number today, from Max at MacLean’s, and gave him a ring to see if he could shed any light on the process that caused the River Styx to become Styx Creek, to then become the Chaucer Street drain. Peter couldn’t help me but he did put me onto this book:

Pipelines and People

John Armstrong was a journalist commissioned to write the history of the Hunter District Water Board, as it was then. It’s full of the kind of mind-numbingly dull stuff of all corporate histories, and that no one who wasn’t directly involved is ever going to find interesting. Reminds me of the annual reports I’ve been editing lately. The back pages are filled with mug shots of the kind of gravel-faced curmudgeons they don’t make any more, guys like the Chuckle Brothers, below:

Hunter Water curmudgeons

But if you do want to know about the history of drains, which sadly I do, it has enough to keep you going. Did you know that Sydney had an outbreak of bubonic plague as recently as 1900? That water was so scarce in early Newcastle that “A common sight in Mayfield and Waratah was Sam Fordham selling water obtained from the well [where Club Phoenix now stands on Industrial Drive] for one shilling a cask of about 40 gallons”.

Armstrong must have spent many long, long hours in the Water Board archives. In his preface he thanks his wife “for her co-operation”. Do I get the sense she wasn’t totally enthusiastic about the whole project? Perhaps her lack of enthusiasm had something to do with the amount of time JA spent down there; librarian Miss Elizabeth Cribb is singled out for extra thanks for providing him with “special assistance”. As Leslie Phillips would say, Well hello!


Knowing what to write about


Sometimes when I set off on a walk I find something, and I think that that will be the thing I’ll write about. Today I came across a pile of broken-up concrete, just behind the Clyde Street lights, where someone had pulled up a slab but not wanted to pay the tip fees. It set me off thinking of fly-tipping, as it’s called in Britain, and things I’ve found at the side of the road in years gone by.

fly-tipped concrete

In the gasworks I came across this iridescent grevillea blossom and my thinking veered off towards colours and the intensity of Australian colours. One of the brightest birds I was ever likely see in Britain was a jay, but a British jay in an Australian backyard would go completely unnoticed.

grevillea blossom

And then, still thinking about colours, I came across this crusty old porn mag and it set me off thinking about other things completely. (No, stop it.) I mean that I was back thinking about the fly-tips of England and, in the days before the Internet put porn and gambling on tap to any teenage boy with broadband and a Gmail address. In those far-distant days the discovery of a battered Penthouse or Club (a kind of British version of Hustler or something, but inevitably dowdier) could keep a playground full of boys enthralled for weeks.

Saucy men's mag

I think this mag’s probably pretty lame. Anything that makes it into print now isn’t going to be all that racy, that’s for the .xxx websites. Apparently.

And then the story found me. Two young lads in the old switchboard room. They hid when they saw me but they came out when they realised I wasn’t a security guard (me? look like a security guard?). They were on the mooch; someone had told them it was a good place to go getting up to “stuff” or whatever it is that young lads get up to in derelict gasworks sites.

No entry

There was a battered old “No entry” sign and the chance was too good to miss. They let me take their picture: Mr X, on the left, from Islington and Mr Y, on the right, visiting from West Wallsend. I left them to wander off into the admin building to, I imagine, break things or start a fire.

I wondered how many people talk about visiting the gasworks site and whether this blog has in any small way contributed to that. I know from my stats that my readers aren’t in the millions but I do get all kinds of odd visitors. But I like the idea of the gasworks being my gasworks just for me, so if I like that idea why am I blogging about it?

The idea of a blog would have been anathema to my dad. Anything useful was guarded, gripped tightly in his bricklayer’s fist and thrust deep into a jacket pocket. Whatever lesson he learnt in his youth wasn’t passed on to his son. I have the feeling that these won’t be the last young lads I meet in the gasworks.

Telly tubbies


There’s a clear but unspoken etiquette around rubbish. Sometimes if I’m walking Jambo around the place and he does a poo then I do the right thing, pick it up in a plastic bag and then … and then … and then carry this bag of cooling dog crap around with me for the next half hour.

But if, say, I’m walking him around on bin night and there are rows and rows of rubbish bins waiting to be emptied, then wouldn’t it be sensible to put this bag of dog poo into some stranger’s wheelie bin? Really, it does make sense; it’s going to go to the tip one way or another. And yet I feel bad about doing it, and expect to have some angry householder come running down the street after me: “Oi! Take your dog’s crap and put it in your own goddam bin!”

We do get proprietorial about our bins and, when it comes to council collection time, about our bit of pavement. I’ve bristled when someone’s dumped their rubbish on my bit of pavement. Maybe they just had a bit too much and saw my bit of bare pavement and thought, well, he can handle a bit more. It’s no skin off his nose. But somehow, weirdly, it is.

There’s a council pick-up day fast approaching; you can tell, because people get twitchy and start dumping all kinds of things around the place. Here’s a neat row of tellies on Chatham Road that appeared on Sunday morning.


It was quite hard to photograph them, even on a Sunday, because of all the traffic. Which makes me wonder who put them there, so carefully and in such a neat row. For all the effort that they put into doing this they could just as easily have taken them to the Newcastle City Council’s recyclable collection place. Maybe there’s some other etiquette that I’m not aware of. If so, please explain.


Baird Street


Having lived in Hamilton North for a dozen+ years, I finally did something for the very first time today: I went down Baird Street. (Note: the sign isn’t wobbly like that in real life, it’s just some random effect that my incredibly rubbish camera phone introduced.)

Baird Street sign

Baird Street’s unlike any other street in Hamilton North. It’s not as cramped as, say, Bowser Street and Philips Street and the other blocks at the western end, up towards the Bowlo. (I was told that these places were built as soldier settler blocks in the days when Hamilton North was known as Newtown.) The houses on the northern side of the street have back yards that are completely exposed to anyone walking over Donald Street bridge; you can look down into them and see people barbecuing or kids bouncing on trampolines or just generally fossicking around.

There’s a strip of vegetation that conceals some of the houses from the bridge. I don’t know whether any of these householders consider it to be part of their land, and whether they plant and grow things there or not, but for several years there’s been a lovely crop of bananas that pop up around October/November. So if you’re struggling to meet your mortgage payments because of the price of bananas, do yourself a favour and take a trip down Baird Street. They’re green now, but they won’t be for long.


They learnt their lesson


The last time I saw the guys who come down with their whipper-snippers to clean up the banking they slightly miscalculated the time and the tide. They were a little smarter this time and parked a bit further upstream.

Ute in creek

It looks like a great job: plenty of fresh air and exercise, out in the open, you could finally catch up on all those podcasts that have been banking up on iTunes. Though I guess the reality’s a wee bit different.

Whipper snippers

Not much fun when it’s raining and you’ve still got to fulfil your contract, the motor on your whipper-snipper’s so loud you can hear your iPod. And then you might get the job that the other guys had further down the line: spraying herbicide from vast hoses onto the scrub around the rail tracks. One had a mask, one didn’t.

And finally, on account of nothing, a red ball came bobbing by.

Red ball in beck

One sik addiction


Beautiful weather. An extraordinary number of Ironlak cans down the creek, at least 12 and maybe 15.

Ironlak cans

I was expecting the railway bridge or the creekbank to be covered in new paint jobs but everything was exactly the same.

Tunnel entrance

One sik addiction

The only sign of life was a bag of prawn heads. Maybe all this crazy badness had been washed down from New Lambton, the mother pit of all suburban wildness. Times like this I’m glad I live in Hamilton North.

Bag of prawns

Joshua reads the New Testament


It was too wet to go down the creek in the morning. I took Jambo for a walk around Richardson Park; after summer storms you can sometimes find dead flying foxes or magpie chicks, which always gives him a thrill. Today there was nothing dead worth sniffing at and so he stuck his head between the concrete palings and stared longingly into the creek.

Jambo on the bridge

By the afternoon the sun had come out and the day was transformed. We went for an evening stroll towards the gasworks and bumped into the dosser, who was having an afternoon nap on a bed of broken foam and long grass. We’ve become quite chatty, ever since Jambo broke the ice for us, and I could tell that he wanted to have a yarn but I was keen to crack on. Jambo had the scent of rabbits and was zig-zagging up and down the chainlink fence.

The gasworks always offers some pleasant surprise. A bunch of flowers in bloom (lillies?) …

Pretty flowers

or a bit of wildlife, in this case a young blue-tongue taking advantage of the warm afternoon sun …

bue-tongue lizard

I saw a movement over in the old admin building, a place that’s occasionally inhabited. It was a young lad, maybe 13 or 14. Let’s call him Josh. He froze, thinking that it was my squat and I was coming to give him a hiding, but we got chatting. Josh had come over from Mayfield way. He likes exploring. His favourite place is the old BHP site and he told me about the places he’d gotten into: locker rooms left as they were when the site closed, with the workers’ helmets and jackets still hanging on their pegs.

We carried on into the building, having a snoop. Someone’s been there recently as there was a stack of books that weren’t there last time I looked, including a small copy of the New Testament.

New Testament

The place was empty, though there were plenty of signs of life: a bed, a couple of old mountain bikes, needles, the usual crap.

Trashed office 2

Trashed office

On the table (the glary, over-exposed part on this pic) was a pile of envelopes from the days when this was perhaps the accounts office, the place where all the bills were hammered out on a new, state-of-the-art dot matrix printer. I love the font for Newgas, it speaks of a wildly exciting future of silver jump suits, protein pills and anti-gravity boots.

Newgas envelopes

We headed out and for a walk around the lantana so that Jambo could chase rabbits. Josh decided that the gasworks was so cool that he was going to get a few mates and they’d come over and camp in the admin building one night. I wasn’t sure that that was a very good idea, and told him so, but Josh wasn’t fazed. I had a brief existential “duty of care” crisis but realised that nothing I might say could compare with the adventure, for Josh, of camping out in a derelict building where who knew what might happen. He’s cut from different cloth to me.

He decided to walk back up the creek with me, whether I wanted him to or not. When we got there the dosser was waiting for me. I think he looks forward to our chats (the weather, what day of the week it is, who won the grand final, did Souths make it? etc.) and he was pretty unimpressed to see that I had a guest in tow. He started walking too, maybe to divert Josh away from his camp. We saw some fish in the creek and an eel and got onto the subject of food, and interesting things we’d eaten: eel, goanna, crocodile, witchetty grubs, abalone. We walked, without comment, past a bike washed down in the last flood.

October's bike

A few chats ago I told him my name, the dosser, but he didn’t offer his in return. Like Josh, he’s cut from a different cloth and operates by a different set of values. Mine are probably a bit too warm and inclusive and naively middle class but it does mean that he gets have the kind of lengthy yarns about nothing in particular that I get the impression he misses. I’d like to describe him as something other than “the dosser”. It’s a term I used early on as I didn’t know of an Australian equivalent: the American “hobo” seems to get used a lot, but I didn’t want to use that, and “derro” is just to judgemental and put-downy (see note above on values). I’m not sure if it’s still used in the same way but “dosser” used to be quite a common term in the England of my youth. It was a verb too: I’ve dossed down at mates’ places many a time.

We plodded on, chatting and finally parted at Chatham Road bridge, off to our three very different Saturday nights. We’ll meet again.