Public service announcements


public_service_announcementPSA 1: Be careful

I had a call from a representative of Jemena the other day. (I get the sense that Jemena is trying to handle this sensitively and didn’t want to be seen as coming down hard on me.) The discussion was around the post-fire photographs of the gasworks buildings, as portrayed in the blog. Jemena was less concerned about the issue of site access than the potential for any person on the site being injured or exposing themselves to dangerous chemicals or fibres.

This is a fair call. The structure of the fire-damaged building is seriously impaired and the there issues with scattered asbestos roof tiles having been broken, thereby exposing fibres. These tiles have been sprayed with a PVA-based suppressant, but it would still be foolhardy to put oneself in danger.

The photos that I use on the blog are sent to me by all kinds of people: there’s a small army of urban explorers out there ducking under fences, jumping gates and hopping over walls. I love getting and using your photos but, in the interests of your personal safety, do take care and please avoid these dangerous sites.

PSA 2: Phoenix

Does anyone remember Jiya, the cockatiel from Hamilton North who could say, among other things, “Show us ya tits!”? That story ended happily, but now Jiya’s little companion, Phoenix, has bolted.

My kids were asking the other day, “What is that weird bird call?” It wasn’t actually a bird, it was Erin tramping the streets calling out “Phoenix! Phoenix!” to every flock of cockatiels in the area. So far, with no luck. I think I saw him looking wet, lonely and bedraggled in a banksia tree on Emerald Street, but since then nothing. I’m starting to have a bad feeling. Pretty well every walk around the creek reveals a scattering of feathers as some wee birdie falls victim to something further up the food chain.


If a feather takes my fancy it might end up in my hatband for a while, though they tend to fall out or get blown away after a few weeks. At the moment there’s a koel tail feather, juvenile magpie, ibis and … er … possibly Phoenix.


The usual black-shouldered kites have been joined around the gasworks by a nankeen kestrel and – for the first time in ages (at least to my observation) –  a peregrine falcon, on Wednesday morning. Obviously springtime means everything’s on the go and there are hungry fledglings in countless nests waiting for dinner.


I haven’t found any dead cockatiels with bands, so perhaps there is hope yet that young Phoenix will live up to his name and spring from the ashes. If you do happen to see him, give Erin a call and put her out of misery.

Thank you, arsonist


We all need a Big Fear in our lives: fear of going to Hell, fear of nuclear armageddon, fear of fundamentalists with backpack bombs. Fear is a great motivating force.

As a young lad in Seventies Britain the Big Fear was the nuclear clock, ticking away at three minutes to midnight, ably supported by another fear that started with the Irish Republican Army’s mainland bombing campaign around 1973. Those bombs were terrible things but (and this is a contentious argument) they were a contributing factor in bringing the British Government to the negotiating table. While PMs of all shades publicly stated that they’d never deal with terrorists there was behind-the-scenes movement; and every time these talks stalled or faltered, a bomb in a British shopping centre would quickly restart the talks.

I thought of this in the to and fro that followed the arson attack on the old Gas and Coke building.


Or that should be “arson attacks”. The first one, the one that we all feared had destroyed the beautiful old Thomas Pepper-designed administration building, turned out to be in the rather scummy wash-up building behind it.


This building has been in the process of falling to pieces for some time, with most of the roof letting in the weather, and the interior generally trashed.


It’s long been the haunt of squatters and folk in need of a quick shelter.


The first fire took out the eastern-most two-thirds of the building but left the final third (nearest Clyde Street) intact. This final third had a quite cosy set up by someone, much more so than the usual mess of damp mattress, filthy sleeping bag and the trash of daily living. It was this part of the building that went up in the second fire. Which makes me tend to think that this was perhaps the work of some street beef; someone was cranky with someone else and, after the first attempt failed, went back to finish the job of messing with someone else’s life.


The response from Jemena (the site’s owners) after the first fire was mainly the stock responses that organisations make when they’re not entirely sure what to do and they haven’t been given any information from head office. (The spokesperson who responded to ABC 1233 Radio was from the Sydney office; the action really happens in Melbourne.) But after the second fire things really started moving.


The now completely gutted and derelict wash-up building is fenced off. I imagine they’re just waiting to get hold of an asbestos contractor to remove the roof tiles before razing it.

The Pepper building was also the subject of frenzied activity, some of it on the interior but most of it to make the exterior secure.


In the absence of any actual maintenance work for some time this is in fact a good thing. At least it can’t get trashed any further.


So for this at least I say, “Thank you, Mister Arsonist”. (Okay, it may have been a female arsonist, but I’m going to take a punt on that.)


There’s been work on the wider site too, with the fire-hazard grass having been slashed and some repair work to the chain-link fence (again). I’m not entirely optimistic about the Pepper building’s future, but things aren’t going backwards.


(And I suppose I must note here that, no, I don’t condone arson, the IRA, terrorism etc. etc. etc.)



Creek or drain? Ugly or beautiful? Wildlife corridor or polluted sinkhole? Alcohol-fuelled fun times or puritanical finger-wagging?


Yes, as a writer I have to admit that, sometimes, a picture really does say my thousand words in a single instant. But this idea of the creek / drain’s duality is one that’s long provoked me. We had a big rain the other day, big enough to trigger the release mechanism on the litter boom by the TAFE. This means that there’s nothing to hold the litter back and so it was all washed away and now the creek looks beautiful and clean. But only because the filth is elsewhere, and just because it’s somewhere else doesn’t mean that it no longer bothers me.

The cool change that preceded the rain gathered the discarded bottles up into clusters around the creek banks.


And yet it also blew the wattle blossom into beautiful patterns on the water’s surface, more beautiful than my poor photo skills show. (Which gives me a little hope in the “picture paints a thousand words” department.)


The recent fire in the gasworks triggered some debate on the Lost Newcastle facebook page about what should happen to the site; not just the admin building but the entire area. I’ve been contacted by Jemena to say that they’re “considering remediation options” but quite what this means is uncertain. Topping the whole place with bitumen and making it into a car park for the proposed transport hub is “an option”, but not one I’d like to see. Someone suggested a wetlands park, an idea I kicked around in the Newcastle 2020 exhibition.

I felt a step closer to the wetland idea when Jambo found a discarded kayak paddle up by the Chatham Road bridge. Is this simply rubbish or a sign of things to come?


I’m an optimist: I’ll take it as a sign of things to come. More kayaks in the creek please!



Good news, for now


For those of you who, like me, woke up this morning to the horrible news that the Gas and Coke building had been destroyed by fire: be calm. Well, for the moment.


The fire damaged the old wash-up building, the one set back from the main road. It’s not the lovely old building by the railway gates, though I can’t help but feel it’s only a matter of time before something BAD happens in there. ABC 1233 rang to ask what I knew about it but I was pretty useless, other than to say, “It wasn’t me!” I don’t know what Jemena are doing with the site, I don’t know if the Coke building is heritage listed* † (though a thumbnail photo of it appears on Council’s heritage web page) and I don’t know what the plans are for the site as a whole.


Maybe this will be a good thing. Maybe the fire will trigger some kind of action. Maybe.

* No, it isn’t.

† Yes it is!

Answers on a postcard


I recently had the extraordinary good luck to have a joy flight over Newcastle, Lake Macquarie and the lower Hunter in a single-engined aircraft. After a couple of cancellations due to bad weather and head colds we finally made it aloft on what was a spectacularly glorious day. Among the many highlights was a moment of banking over the city at 500 feet and looking down to see my beloved Styx Creek and gasworks glide into view.


Seeing it from this altitude put the area’s scale into perspective. This is the view that developers and state government stamp duty collectors must have all the time, their eyes boring into this prize patch of land, quietly waiting for land values to reach the point where it’s worth scraping off the polluted topsoil and banging on a few hundred apartments.

That day’s unlikely to arrive for some time, but I do wish I knew what was going on with the gasworks and the triangular-shaped piece of land between Broadmeadow and Hamilton railway stations. I was chatting to the young fella whose job it is to collect water samples from the creek and the gasworks.


He’d been hearing theories about the proposed transport hub for the back of Broadmeadow, with the possibility of the gasworks becoming a car park for people to park-and-drive. This is one idea that bubbles around like the coal tar that oozes up from between the cracks in the concrete creek bed. One day? I dunno. Maybe.

There’s certainly been activity again in the gasworks. The lock was busted open (someone lost the key!) so that a big truck could get in.


Large pipes were trailed around the site.


They led to a wheeled manifold, and a pumpy looking thing, and a big tank … and … and there my knowledge of manly hydrographic implements became exhausted.


But it’s a sign, a sign that something’s happening.

Which I wish it would for the old admin building. The flagpole, rotten at the base, finally fell or was pushed over.


The windows have been smashed and the doors opened for some time now.


The old front room has had the spray treatment. G’day, Kismo.


Is that you who pinched the razzle magazine from the newsagent? In the age of uncensored internet porn this moderately risque magazine looked almost quaint. Well, almost.


Jemena don’t answer my emails asking what they’re going to do with the building. Renew Newcastle tried to get somewhere with it too but I haven’t heard from them for a while, so I think that that idea’s probably dead in the water. Poor old gasworks.


If anyone DOES know, please send me the answer on a postcard or the back of a stamped self-addressed envelope. Or an email.