Where to begin?


Such a varied weekend, so much stuff happening. It is, as young folk might say, “going off” down the creek. (Young people might not actually say that, if they ever did, but I heard a Young Person say it once and so it’s now locked in my head as Young Person speak.)

It’s been interesting on the litter front. Outside the gasworks I discovered what I immediately took to be the belt buckle of Diana of the Island of Thermiscyra (aka Wonder Woman), but when I Googled images of Wonder Woman I didn’t see any evidence of a cardboard belt buckle with a W crayoned onto it.

Further investigation revealed that, during one of Marvel’s many reinventions of Wonder Woman (this time in the 1960s):

Wonder Woman surrendered her powers in order to remain in Man’s World rather than accompany her fellow Amazons to another dimension. Becoming a mod boutique owner, the powerless Diana Prince acquired a Chinese mentor named I Ching. Under I Ching’s guidance, Diana learned martial arts and weapons skills and engaged in adventures that encompassed a variety of genres, from espionage to mythology.

A mod boutique owner would not make belts out of cardboard. No, this cannot be Wonder Woman’s belt buckle. So who’s is it???

Anyway: swans. I saw my first ever cygnet down the creek the other week. According so my Ash Island sources there have been lots of swans breeding this year; indeed, a family of six made it up the creek to Chinchen Street. Jambo, bored with chasing ducklings, went belting after them.

I hate to think what would have happened to him if he’d actually managed to catch up with them. His doggy paddle was no match for their lazy gliding, and when the pen and the cob reared up and hissed he made a quick retreat to the banking, from whence he barked with impotent terrier fury.

The cygnets, not yet fledged, were perfectly camouflaged against the filth and junk by the litter boom.

Unfortunately the swan family had gone by Saturday afternoon. That was the day when, at 4 pm precisely, the Twitchathon kicked off. The Twitchathon groups birders into teams of four, many of whom charge around the countryside confirming sightings and doing birdy things. There’s a great show about the Twitchathon, featuring members of the Hunter Bird Observers Club. The HBOC has a great record in NSW, with last year’s winners being the Hunter’s very own Menacing Monarchs.

I bumped into one team at the TAFE. The City Chicks were dead giveaways: heads flung back and binocular-ed eyes boring into the treetops, water-resistant birding book in one hand and checklist in the other. We had a great chat (no birding pun intended) about birding, and our favourite apps, and the creek. I officially award each of these lovely women a special Hamilton North Blog Wonder Woman Belt of Awesomeness.

I went to talk to another reading group about The Book this week. It’s always interesting to have people tell you what they think of what you’ve written. I’m thick-skinned with broad shoulders (not literally) and don’t mind a serve, but everyone was very generous. And they gave me a bottle of wine! How good is that! Thank you!

I also got a great little postcard from H-FOOT. I don’t know who you are or what you do, but H-FOOT I loved your card and your message. It’s things like that that make me happy.

And, to cap off a happy-making weekend of general goodness, I came across my first Christmas bauble of the season. This is definitely early, and looked as though it may well have been banging around the creek since last Yuletide.

Seeing it reminded me that, a year ago, I was busily trying to finish a book about Styx Creek, wondering whether anyone would ever  read it. And I was also getting ready to turn 50.

Life: it just keeps on going.

Out with the old


Here’s an outdoor room with creek-side views, a beautiful place to watch the sun set over Coal and Allied Stadium (or Tinkler Fields or whatever it’s called this week). For a dumped settee it looked to be in quite good nick, though by the time I got back from my walk the cushions had already disappeared.

I’ve been watching the renovation of this tiny place on the corner of Clyde Street and Emerald Street. It seems to be having every original feature removed; each week there’s a pile of dados or wooden window frames or turned-wood struts lying on the pavement ready for the tip. I appreciate that houses age and, if things aren’t cared for, they rot or stop functioning. But it’s sad – and incongruous – to fit bland aluminium windows into a period framework.

That boxy looking thing on the verandah is an old cast iron stove, which has probably been in the kitchen for a hundred years. A quick Google finds a few Metters Bega No. 3 stoves on sale or through eBay, one for $550. Blimey.

If there’s one building in Hamilton North that I could get my hands on, though, it’s the old Gas & Coke building. I’ve blogged before about the Gas & Coke building, and I’ve had any number of people tell me how they’d love to reinvent it as an artists’ palace, a refugee centre, an IT start-up node, a dojo, a … you name it. Jemena (the owners of the gasworks site) recently replaced the broken windows and disconnected the temporary electricity rig-up that squatters had put in, but now it’s been broken into again.

Someone sent me some pictures of the interior. Here’s a shot of Clyde Street lights from the inside.

The building is still in remarkably good condition. The pressed-metal ceilings are absolutely gorgeous, even with those cheesy light fittings and room dividers.

This must be among the best examples of pressed metalwork in the city.

It’s part of the city’s industrial heritage too. There’s a story attached to this strong room, with its heavy duty safe door. But does anyone know it?

But, worryingly, water is starting to get in through the roof. Parts of the metal ceiling are rusting and the paint’s peeling from dampness in the brickwork.

I was talking to some friends about this dilemma: how do you convert a general sense – shared by many people, that this place has massive potential – how do you convert this feeling into action? Mobilisation?

I’ve written to Jemena before, without response. If we can’t love our iconic post office then what hope does the poor old Gas & Coke building have?

Happy big one, PP and Bert the Flirt


So this is how I started the post, which was supposed to go out on Saturday:

I couldn’t let this day go by without some kind of recognition: it’s fifty years to the day since PP and Bert the Flirt stole a pot of paint and a one-inch brush from the shed, climbed under the Chatham Road bridge and daubed their names on the concrete.

Except that, what with one thing and another, it didn’t happen. Don’t ask: it was just one of those days, with 36 hours’ worth of life to jam into 24 hours’ worth of day.

I’d had it in my diary for about 18 months to make sure that I’d be under Chatham Road bridge on 20 October 2012 to celebrate 50 years of vandalism in Hamilton North; maybe sink a tinnie for the olden days. To be fair to myself I did manage to get down there, and took this photo.

I took this one too, of the PP graffito. But this is what threw me: I was inexplicably a bit pissed off that someone had – roll the drums of irony – vandalised it. Yeah! Fifty years it had been there, this piece of vandalism, pristine and untouched, and then a week before its fiftieth birthday it gets … vandalised.

I suppose it’s entirely fitting, really. POAS told me about the relentless competition between street artists: the “being first” to a place, the tagging over of other people’s tags with your own tags, the endless search for novelty and “firstness”. And yet, when I looked up and saw it, I felt really bloody annoyed with young DTEC and REAG. Where’s your respect?!

Jambo and I carried on down the creek. The ten ducklings are down to nine and it’ll be interesting to see how many make it through the coming weeks. This little guy’s taking a risk sitting on the banking.

There are lots more predators around with the warm weather, but on Sunday the weather turned and it was horrible and blustery, and the temperature dropped by a gazillion degrees. Jambo almost stepped on this junior blue-tongue that was trying to suck a bit of warmth from the bitumen in the gasworks. He was so cold he could barely hiss (which rather sounds like something Mr Humphries would say on Are You Being Served?).

Headed upstream at the end, to see what the kids had done to the recently pressure-blasted concrete bankings. Found this piece of Bakunin-inspired rant. Not sure what Julia would make of it; perhaps “only people” or “only human-kind”. We’re not living in the 1960s, you know.

Unlike Bert the Flirt and PP. Where are you now, guys? What do you think about modern vandalism? Will anyone visit “No gods or kings only man” in 2062? So many questions, so few answers.

Peppa Pig hits the airwaves


I had the extraordinary pleasure of spending half an hour in the company of ABC Radio’s Richard Fidler. Richard was in Newcastle for ABC 1233’s Night At The Wireless and held some of his Conversations with people from round these parts; it’s worth following up the link and listening to the podcasts.

But after my brief moment of fame it was back to work, and back down the drain. The onshore wind is blowing the litter into places it rarely goes. The little stream that’s officially knowns as Chaucer Street Drain (but is, in fact, the original Styx Creek) is choked at the point where it joins the Styx proper. I know that Dave and the crew will be out on Friday but their workload’s ridiculous and they can only do so much.

They must have pulled these trollies out the other day. Franklins closed down and was replaced by Richie’s IGA; there’s a trolley from each which is a kind of trolley equivalent of the way that Time Team dates trenches. “This shard of pottery’s from the late Roman period!” Phil will declare, and immediately they’ll conjure up an entire history for some sodden patch of Pommie Land.

One of the things that Richard asked about was creek graffiti. The stuff down the drain tends, on the whole, to be of poor quality. The concrete bankings are palimpsests, constantly painted over and over, but with very little forward development or improvement in quality. When kids do get to a certain stage of ambition, that’s when they hit Your Suburb. But, till then, they make blah like this.

I saw the young lad who made this blah the other day, slithering along the wet silt towards the railway bridge, and knew straight away what he was up to. He tried to make himself scarce but there’s no fooling Wile E. Coyote. I look forward, young man, to watching you improve.

I found a pig, too. My kids are too old for cartoons but for some reason I think that this might be Peppa Pig.

Why do I know it’s Peppa and not Pepper? I have no idea. It’s just another piece of dross that’s taking up space in my brain, space that could be filled by something useful such as … um … yeah.

Out nabout


Some days it’s lovely and quiet down the creek; other days, it’s like Pitt Street at lunchtime. I know that this pic doesn’t exactly illustrate the kind of frenzied pedestrianised activity that I’m alluding to, but it was, well, a bit busy the other day. Three lads on bicycles, a couple of dog walkers, and these guys with their ute.

There seems to have been increased monitoring of the water around the creek and the gasworks recently, or perhaps I’ve just noticed it more. Certainly Jemena have pulled their finger out but, really, the gasworks is so totally cream-crackered that I wonder what they expect to discover with all their testing. That it’s getting cleaner?

It didn’t rain for a couple of weeks, which seems like a record after all that La Nina behaviour of the last year or so. It really is amazing, when the rain stops, how quickly the crap builds up. I wonder: is it good to have masses of crap in the creek because it hasn’t been washed away, or have a nice clean creek because it has been washed away? That’s a bit like “Would you rather be blind or deaf?” I know, but there you go.


It did rain again a few days ago, bringing a small harvest of trolleys downstream. But I believe we’re in for a hot, dry summer – or so They say. It’ll be interesting to see the flow-on effects around the rail lines and the gasworks. At the moment there are lots of predators around (hawks, foxes, cats), which indicates a healthy base to the food pyramid. But if the weather dries up I imagine that there’ll be less bunnies and ducklings and other tasty fox treats.

There is also the Baird Street factor. Baird Street is, for the purpose of TomTom and Google Maps, a regular street in Hamilton North. We residents, however, know that Baird Street occupies the fractal zone between to wormholes, each with their own massive anti-gravitational pull. The result is that Baird Street is in both Hamilton North AND the saturated tropics of Far North Queensland at the same time.

How else could Baird Street have such a healthy crop of bamboo …

… AND bananas!

I rest my case.

There once was an ugly duckling


The morning crowd was out in force the other day, down by the litter boom: two kinds of egret, two kinds of cormorant, a pelican, a pair of chestnut teal, a darter (first in a long while), various white-faced herons, and the domestic duck that’s taken up residence there (and is horribly cranky).

There are lots of black ducks, and several clutches of ducklings – one of them with ten littlies. That won’t last, not with the number of foxes that have been prowling the gasworks area lately.

Ducklings drive Jambo mad and he’s compelled to chase them. If they don’t think they’re going to make it to the deep water in time they go into survival mode – diving and paddling under water for a couple of metres before bobbing up, then disappearing again. It’s a very effective survival method when there are ten of them at it zipping off in all directions; at least, it’s very effective against a small-brained terrier.

But what a surprise yesterday morning. As I was heading back upstream I saw this huge great grey thing paddling towards me. A cygnet!

When was the last time you got up close and personal with a cygnet? They’re bigger than you think! This one hadn’t fledged and was still covered in down, it’s wings were no more than stumps. Jambo was completely nonplussed. As was I. Where on earth had it come from? There are no large bodies of fresh water upstream that I can think of, and I never see swans around the creek.

Answers please!

Deep topography


Newcastle is the poorer for the loss of Professor Behooving, though our loss is Tasmania’s gain. And, let’s face it, with fire blight and cheap imports, the Apple Isle needs all the help it can get. However, I was delighted to get an email from the Prof recently, pointing me to a brilliant documentary on YouTube about Nick Papadimitriou, aka The London Perambulator.

I was put off at first by the length (45 YouTube minutes are like several real-time glacial epochs) and so I didn’t watch it through till the other night when The Circumstances were Just Right: suddenly-cooled weather, a flogging at the dojo that left me with aching muscles, and the wife saying “Do you want the water leaving in?” after she climbed out of a volcanically hot bath. It was time! (Watching videos on your iPhone in the bath might seem like crazy, risk-taking behaviour but that’s the way I roll.)

This is a brilliant show. Nick is a walker of London’s “liminal lands”, a researcher for authors Will Self and Iain Sinclair, but also a teacher, a stoner, a polymath, a convicted arsonist, and just a wee tiny bit of a nutter – nutty in that delightful, slightly weird, English kind of way.

I once saw a show on SBS in which Will Self walked from his home in London to Heathrow Airport, then flew to Los Angeles and walked from LAX to downtown. Sinclair describes these tracts of land between homes and airports as “the ultimate shock-corridors of deregulated urbanism”.

“Shock-corridor”: what a brilliant phrase! I’d love to apply it to my own “shock-corridor”, the creek, but in all conscience I can’t. Surprising, yes. Shocking? Hmm.

Maybe not. But when I’m down there I do get a sense of Papadimitriou’s “deep topography”. This is Nick’s own phrase, an evolved form of the psycho-geography that the Situationists coined as a response to the faceless urban environments of 1960s Britain and France. Apparently. Deep topography occurs through the process of walking while carrying a kind of mindfulness of place.

Walking is the key, and as the video shows it’s getting harder to be a walker in our cities. I once had to go to an event at the new Charlestown Bowlo and arrived there by foot. It was impenetrable; the only access seemed to be this deep, black rectangle into which cars disappeared like pellets into the maw some colossal beast. About 30 years ago I picked up a zine in an anarcho-syndicalist bookshop in Manchester (those were the days). The zine was called Away With All Cars, a ranting pamphlet by a certain “Mr Social Control”, head of the “outlawed Pedestrian Freedom Front”. I’d love to see what he’d make of Charlestown Bowlo.

Here’s a bit of Iain Sinclair talking about the difficulty of walking in cities, and the way that walking (as Bruce Chatwin noted, in Songlines) creates its own narrative:

Ease of passage across the city is ever more denied and so the walker becomes somebody like a guerilla, he has to  duck and dive to negotiate a passage across the city. [Walking] is the way that narrative presents itself. I don’t think that any other form [of travel] engenders narrative in quite the same way. If you’re in a car, you’re in a pod, you’re in a kind of dream that’s sealed off, a kind of reverie. If you’re on a bicycle you’ve got to be so conscious of the traffic surrounding you just to survive. There’s no time to get into the stream of natural consciousness which is walking, and therefore walking becomes the most natural form for lifting your consciousness. I think that all the real spirits of the city are doing it all the time.

If only I could be that erudite and articulate! I’ll bet Iain Sinclair doesn’t wallow in his wife’s bathwater watching YouTube videos on his iPhone.

Today I perambulated upstream rather than downstream. I felt like a change and so Jambo and I headed past Hamilton North School and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter towards the Gully Line. To go this far you pass beneath several bridges, at Griffiths Road, Broadmeadow Road, and the new pedestrian bridge by the showground. The bridges provide punctuation marks in the linear narrative of the creek; they’re places to pause, tag, paint, sleep, shoot up, pull the heads off a few prawns, cobble a bong together.

Dump your shopping trolley.

It was nice, but I prefer downstream. I prefer the brackish water of the intertidal zone, the delta where the salt water has pushed up through Throsby Creek and melds with the fresh water that pours endlessly from the hills around Adamstown. But I don’t ever come back from the creek feeling shocked or disassociated from the urban world. Unlike this happy person.

I wonder what he’d make of the Situationists.

Happy ending


Was it really Goebbels who said, “One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic”? For some reason, he’s always been linked to that quote in my mind, but that could be because I come from that particular generation of postwar British kids for whom bomb sites and Nazis were part of the cultural landscape.

Crowds of anything are always intimidating: skinheads, locusts, people wrapped in Australian flags. Any individual, when multiplied, becomes a horrible mass; a statistic. It can be strangely rare for us to experience any mass of horrible things reduced to its individual components. Today that happened to me.

Flying foxes have come to be judged not as groups of individual creatures but as natural phenomena, like bushfires and tsunami. The councillors at Singleton and Lorne and God knows how many other towns have been vexed with the issue of ‘plagues’ of them for a few years now, their incessant chattering keeping people awake at night, their poop soiling people’s cars and their bite carrying the possibility of disease. (Flying foxes, that is, not councillors. Though …)

We have our own flocks in Newcastle; in fact, artist Christine Bruderlin has included them in her “ABC of Newcastle” series of greeting cards:

There’s a roost in Richardson Park and the figs that overhang Styx Creek are often filled with flying foxes as they pause in their journey between the bigger roosts at Blackbutt and Ash Island.

This morning, Jambo was attracted to something near the Chatham Road bridge. A few crows were dancing around it and I assumed that someone had chucked a bag of old sausages over the parapet. (Bizarrely, that is not nearly so rare or unusual an event as it might sound.) But the thing, the thing that I thought was a black plastic bag, suddenly reared up and screamed in fear. It was a flying fox.

I’ve never seen a live flying fox so close up before. She was gorgeous, this one, in spite of the fact that she was injured, disorientated and terrified. I’ve never seen such huge, round eyes. Her fur was dark, with a coffee-coloured ruff.

How did I know she was a she? Because her baby (kit? cub?) was clinging to her chest as she dragged herself along the concrete, desperately trying to find something to climb. (Flying foxes can’t lift off from the ground like a bird, they have to drop and swoop from an elevation.) It was the baby that the crows were after, at least in the first instance. The mother’s wings were bloodied from the abrasion of the concrete.

What to do? I called WIRES on my mobile but they were flat out.

Do I risk running home for a pillowcase, leaving mum and bub to the mercy of the crows? In the end, I did that. Luckily not much more damage had been done by the time I got back, with leather gloves and a couple of pillowcases. As soon as I covered her the fight seemed to go out of her and she just became very small and quiet.

After a few phone calls I finally got through to Sandy and John. These local heroes nurse flying foxes back to good health, an action that I’m sure some people would see as akin to breeding rats or mosquitos or some other kind of vermin. Nothing could be further from the truth; these people are pure animal lovers. It was remarkable to see how the flying fox responded to John’s tender approach. He’d already prepared a safe cage for the fox and her baby, following my phone call to Sandy.

Here, he’ll assess their health once they’re a little less stressed (apparently the mothers lose the ability to provide milk if stressed, but John and Sandy have a hand-delivered formula for the young).

By the time I left she’d calmed down considerably. I’m hoping this story has a happy ending; I’ll keep you up to date.

Post-industrial landscape


On the weekend I went to a 120th birthday party (two friends turning 60) on a lovely bush block at Black Bulga, outside Dungog. I remember the first 30th birthday party that I went to and the amazement I felt that I knew people who were so old. It’s been all downhill since then so even though there was a teensy WTF? moment of being at a 60th birthday (a sixtieth birthday?!) party I was, in truth, very comfortable with the whole scene.

The book came up in conversation and a few folk, as often happens, told me their stories of running around Newcastle’s drains in the olden days. I never tire of hearing these stories: Di’s mum would make her a packed lunch and send her off, at about seven years of age, down Mayfield’s drains to play for the day with her friends; Max recalled the huge paddock (near where the showground is now) known as the Cane Field, a place where kids could got lost for a week, build cubbies, have wars and still be home in time for tea.

The only remnant of this once-vast adventure land that I can find is this one, near Old Mate’s fine-weather camp; you can just see the concrete banking of the creek through the path.

On the other side of this little patch is an open, grassed area between the creek and the rail line. On old maps there were rail tracks here but at some point the bends were reconfigured to make the curves less sharp. Maybe trains got bigger and couldn’t hang a leftie like they could in the olden days.

Although it looks quite natural at first glance, this neglected area’s been a dumping ground for the railways for years. The ground’s not so much soil as ballast.

Sections of the older fixed tracks are still stumble across-able.

But mostly they’ve been pulled up holus-bolus and stacked out of the way, left to rust and rot beneath the lantana.

I’m from the Lake District in England – an area that’s micro-managed by the National Trust. This management is generally a good thing but I do occasionally get cranky when I hear opposition to a wind turbine on the grounds of the area’s outstanding natural beauty, its pristine state. Which is nonsense; the Lake District is a prime example of what happens when people get hold of a resource-rich bit of land and flog it for all it’s worth, strip the hills of trees for a nation’s growing navy or to make charcoal to feed the furnaces and bloomeries and then, when there’s nothing left, enclose it with drystone walls and bang a few million sheep on it.

Same here. Everything that seems natural isn’t. Styx Creek is not a creek. There are native grasses at my feet but this is not a native grassland. Every corner reveals some part of Newcastle’s industrial past, what some might call its rail heritage. Stacks of rotting wooden sleepers …

… piles of bolts and the curious curly ties that once held the tracks to the sleepers …

… the inevitable oil drum …

… and the occasional Big Thing that looks like it’s accidentally found itself in the wrong post-industrial wasteland.

But no kids. Where are they? Where are their cubbies? It’s school holidays but where are the seven-year-olds sent out with packed lunches by their mothers and told not to come home till the street lights come on?

We don’t do that any more. I should probably add the word “thankfully” at the end, as I’m ambivalent about the risk–security tightrope that all parents walk.

But it’s reassuring to know that it’s out there, waiting – that post-industrial landscape. The adventure playground, part flogged-out wasteland, part wild remnant. One of the few places in inner Newcastle where you’ll see a red-bellied black snake, a blue-tongue lizard, a swamp harrier, a fox, water dragon.

I looked up to see this black-shouldered kite fluttering and hovering, occasionally dropping like a stone onto some unsuspecting prey.

Long live the wild, post-industrial landscape.