A coincidence


Okay, so it’s April Fool’s Day, but I did not deliberately set out post about Jemena’s clean up of the gasworks site on this day. It is a coincidence!

Jemena held a community information session at the Hamilton North Bowling Club on Tuesday. There was food, so how could I not go?


The guys from GHD were there, and people from another organisation with a name made up of letters, something like AJC&P. Why do organisations do that? They’re impossible to remember. Or maybe (dons paranoia hat) that’s the point! I’ll call them Acme Productions for easiness.

Anyway, everyone I spoke to was helpful and informative. Michael and Melissa from GHD and Beatrice from Acme Productions were able to answer all of my rambling questions. (“Hmm. I think you’ve actually asked me three questions there. I’ll try to pick them apart for you.”)


As well as tote bags and spring rolls and meat pies (note to caterers: give up making sandwiches. I know you’ve got to provide a “healthy alternative” but no one’s eating them) there were displays with process flow charts and details on remediation options.

As I’ve said before, I believe that everyone in that room is genuinely doing their best to achieve the best outcome. The cynic in me can’t be quelled though. I know what happens when the men in suits get together. It’s simply a function of bureaucracies, from CSIRO to universities to the RTA.

But there will be an outcome. At some point in the not-too-distant future the gasworks will be much, much less dirty and polluted than it is now. And it’ll be on-sold for some other purpose: storage units, transport hub, Chinese funfair. Should I be happy with this? I know I never will be as I have other ambitions for that whole area, ambitions that will remain unrealised because no one would make a zac from it.

As an aside, the only people I don’t get to meet at Jemena’s open sessions are the people from Jemena. They tend to huddle by themselves while the folk from GHD and Acme Productions do the leg work and the talky stuff. Come on, guys: mingle!


The major outcome from the evening was the fancy-schmantzy cap I got in my tote bag. I can now retire my much-loved but distressingly knackered Oxford University cap to the bin.


I’m not a spokesman for a community or in any way representative of anything other than my own nosiness. And so, as ever, I wait. And watch.

Happy April, everyone.

Thinking outside the oval


Got a letter from Jemena regarding the next stages of the gasworks’ clean up. It seems that we’re in the stage of organisations talking to one another and agreeing on exactly what should be done, when and at what cost. There are however still things going on, with trucks and utes going in and out on a fairly regular basis.


The wheels (and caterpillar tracks) are well and truly in motion but I do often ponder the possible alternative futures for this huge open-space area. A wetland linked to a revitalised Styx. (It can be done. Here’s an example from Stamford, New England, USA.) A parkland and dog-walking area. A native bush regeneration scheme.

But that’s too obvious. What we need is a teenager’s perspective. Enter Lachlan:

My 14 year old son is obsessed with sport, and particularly with cricket at the moment and he reckons “they” (the mythical “they” who ought to do stuff) should build a cricket ground in Newcastle capable of hosting Test, ODI and T20 matches. I set him a little task of speculative urban planning, on thinking where “they” could build such a stadium, and I suggested the old gasworks site. As a little experiment, we grabbed an image of the Sydney Cricket Ground and laid it over the gasworks site in Google Earth at the same scale to see if it would fit.

Not only did it fit, it looks like it belongs there!

He’s right, you know!


Deep Throat lives


The idea of a blog is that you write something, chuck it out there and the world either ignores it or responds. The best responses are ones like this one:

Lads can wander the drains, chaps with dogs can wander the drains.
I had to walk home from Georgetown to Tighes Hill, from an appointment, recently and I gave a moment’s thought to walking beside the drains. “I might meet Mark”, I thought, “and say hello”.
But then I realised: an eighty-year-old female, her broken hand in plaster, walking beside the drains, someone would surely ring welfare agencies and interfere.
Not fair.
At least I was able to take a short cut through the TAFE.

And this:

Do you have a location that a 71-year-old, with a bad knee, might be able to access the system? We briefly walk beside it, and have a look into it, every time we walk from our parking spot to the Hunter Stadium for soccer and league games. I’d love to have a walk along it.

I’m seriously going to have to get onto Hunter Water and re-discuss the issue of access to the creek, not just for me but for all my older drain-loving buddies.


At other times the messages are less light-hearted. They are, in fact, intriguing to the point of being unnerving. I’m neither Woodward nor Bernstein, and this blog is hardly the Washington Post, but I did get an email recently after the Goo story post about the state of the gasworks. In it were contained detailed instructions on how to access information from various websites: “enter this URL …. scroll down to X … scroll back up to Y … enter [search term] …” and so on. I felt rather like Kevin Costner meeting Donald Sutherland’s Mr X in JFK.


So much secrecy over a silly gasworks!

By the way, yes, I am still waiting to hear from Jemena’s PR people about clearance of the photos that I took in there on my walking tour.

The best laid plans


Thought of the day: maps show the world the way it is; plans show the world they way it might be.

A couple of pieces of drain-related correspondence dropped into my in-box and triggered this thought. The first email (from the good folk charged by Jemena with the task of rehabilitating the gasworks site) came with photos of a pair of plans from the turn of the twentieth century. These plans set out the gasworks as it was intended to be. The first one shows a detail of the junction of Clyde Street and the rail line; the only recognisable feature today is the Pepper-designed admin building.


The second plan – a more complete scale – is from slightly later, given the presence of holders 4 and 6, and the one for tar and liquor.


I find it interesting that neither of them exactly mirror the gasworks site based on the remains of the built environment. The rail tracks, roads and building footprints are recognisable but don’t match exactly. There’s a fractional discord, like a radio station that isn’t properly tuned in.

In contrast, these maps (sourced by Lachlan) show the area as it was, a snapshot of the time focusing purely on what was of interest to the cartographer. If you look at the middle dark line of those running from the bottom left to the top right, the one with the words “unused railway” along it, you’ll see the point where it crosses the Styx. I’d always understood that this unused railway was simply a planned track, but Lachlan has discovered (through the wonderful resource that is the National Library of Australia’s Trove searchable archive) reports that prove the base for the track was created in the 1870s but was resumed in the 1890s and “repurposed” as a drainage channel.

1893 Parrott-extract

This map shows another later detail.


I’ve added the links Lachlan sourced as they’re well worth reading for a sense of the track / drain’s development, particularly the insight provided by the progress of the “commonage drain”, A Day with the Unemployed, when “butty gangs” of 10 unemployed men assembled and worked on a rotational basis to spread out the income.

As the future of the drain, and the lands to either side (the soon-to-be remediated gasworks and the fuel depot), is in a period of flux, it’ll be interesting to see what plans the powers that be are drawning up for the area. And, of more interest to us mere mortals who simply happen to live right next to it, the reality of what will actually happen.

A murder of crows


I’m not big on collective nouns; I’ve never heard anyone, in normal conversation, refer to a fluther of jellyfish, a puddling of mallards or a bloat of hippopotamuses. They always feel a bit forced and “aren’t I clever?”, basic trivia night fodder. But one that always seems entirely appropriate and completely unforced is “a murder of crows”.

The Wife took Jambo up the night-soil lane on his walk the other morning. At the end, near Bates Street, there’s  a mandarin tree and every year at this time it attracts flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos. They tear off the unripened fruit (perfect size for a talon) and reel around the fence, squawking and giggling like Year 9 boys who’ve broken into the school tuckshop.

But, reported The Wife, a little further along was another group of birds. The crows.


This guy, all on his own, does not look very menacing. But recently Jambo and I have had a 20-strong mob of them circling and cawing and swooping around above our heads. It’s deeply unnerving. Murder feels possible, almost inevitable.

There was murder, this morning. One less sulphur-crested to mangle the mandarins. (And there goes Old Mate, off down the creek for his morning constitutional.)


Which allows me to link, rather unconvincingly, to my own constitutionals. I was pleased to see that H-Foot is still getting out and about. This sign belongs to a water tank that appeared in the gasworks weeks ago. It hasn’t moved but is gradually being plucked at, bent, tweaked and generally knocked about by the Night Walkers. Maybe H-Foot is transforming his/her-self into a pedestrianised Judge Dredd. That’d be something to see.


We were going to go out for a constitutional, me and old H-Foot, but it never came off. I don’t really mind; if it’s meant to happen then, one day, it will.

You out there, H-Foot?

Language differences


The other day I was at the Newcastle/Hunter Studies Symposium at the Newcastle Art Gallery. One of the many excellent presentations was by Keri Glastonbury on the Newcastle blogging and Tumblr scene, and look who should pop up!


Yes, of course, he’s a star. I’m just the human on the other end of the lead.

It was a great day, the presentations supported by the absolutely amazing exhibition focused around the Macquarie Chest.


You MUST get to see this exhibition while it’s still up; it’ll never be together in one place again.

But that’s not what made me think of this post, it was Helen England’s presentation on brass bands in Newcastle. Helen described one of the many demonstration marches that Newcastle’s pit bands made, back in the late-nineteenth century. On this day about a dozen bands marched to the (ahem) Asylum for Idiots and Imbeciles on Watt Street. Yo, Victorians: tell it how it is!

This blunter, old-school use of language was at the forefront of my mind as I’ve recently been proofreading a dictionary of Gurindji, a language from the Northern Territory. (The Gurindji are famous for the Walk-Off.) Modern Gurindji has lots of Kriol words in use, words that have an English origin but have gained a different meaning. And often these are words that have been gently massaged out of modern English usage as they’re considered too abrupt, offensive or (ugh) inappropriate.

I do love the Gurindji words themselves though. Consider this:

nguntiyip, verb, to yelp, like a dog, also used for the sound made by the engine of a bogged car.

I can see that! Or:

murr, verb, to settle down such as after a fight, pain going away as a sore heals, or an engine after it has been turned off.

Priceless. I was thinking of all this in the gasworks the other day when I saw the pair of black-shouldered kites soaring and hovering. They’ve won their territorial battle with the brown goshawk. In Kriol the brown goshawk is known as “chickenhawk”, and here’s the entry from the Gurindji dictionary:

karrkany n. chickenhawk. Milvus migrans. ◆ Manku nyangunyangu-pijik karrkany-ju. “Chickenhawk will make him a witchdoctor.”  This bird can make you into a traditional healer or witchdoctor in a process called tirriny. It does this by calling out karrk . . . karrk and throws a small stick at you. This stick can then be used to heal a person by placing it on the part of the body causing problems. Both men and women can be traditional healers.

Blimey! I’m glad the kites won!

What would this kookaburra think about it all?


Was it Oscar Wilde who said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language? Well, perhaps Australia is a nation divided by a multiplicity of languages.

How long would it take to all fall apart?


Newcastle is very good at contrasts. I was thinking how crisp and glorious and beautiful the creek was this morning, after the foaming brown slurry that it was yesterday. Cloudless blue skies after banks of dull grey; warm sun after none. But even as I thought all this I was reminded that I’ve thought it many times before. In fact, almost every time we get a downpour  the days that follow are   the most perfect imaginable.

When it did finally give up raining yesterday evening I took Jambo upstream and round about because he was totally stir crazy. The underneath of a bridge after rain is a strange, dank and other-worldly place.


There’d been a bit a litter build-up at the TAFE, but in general terms it wasn’t too bad.


But by this morning it had all gone. The brown goshawk was being mobbed by a pair of black-shouldered kites. Not as spectacular as the peregrines when they’re in full acrobatic show-off mode but it still made great viewing. Who’d be a goshawk? As soon as he rolled his eyes, gave up the territory and sloped off across the gasworks the family of magpies that have taken up residence on the naphtha tower decided that they’d have a go too. And then a flock of noisy minahs! What a life.


The gasworks is looking pretty wild at the moment. There’s a tall kind of grass that takes over the place if it’s left uncut. At the moment it’s two metres high in places; the last time it got this long was a couple of seasons ago. The owners sent in a tractor slasher and worked the place over, probably after pressure from the people at ELGAS, who must look across the fence and think “FIRE!” The result was short grass, an influx of rabbits, and a huge number of dead blue-tongue lizards.


This big water tank  seems to have no use any more other than to act as a gigantic reedbed and frog nursery. Which is fine by me!


But it made me wonder what the area would look like if we all stopped maintaining everything. If Dave and the boys stopped coming down with their whipper-snippers, the grass didn’t get slashed, the weeds poisoned, the concrete repaired.

This fig tree near Chinchen Street bridge typifies Nature’s spirit. It’s been pained over, someone’s tried to tear its roots away from the wall, it’s in a poorly watered, over-shaded position, and yet if it were left to its own devices it would probably break that wall to pieces in a couple of decades.


Virtually every outlet you look down has some kind of flora bursting from it. Each plant on its own doesn’t look particularly threatening, but it’s the endless, attritional way that Nature just throws one small fern after another, one raindrop after another, one sunbeam after another, that give it such remarkable power. All things must, in time, succumb.


The bankings were concreted in the 1920s or thereabouts, slightly later in some places, but to look at them you’d be forgiven for thinking they were built in the time of the Pharaohs. All that smooth concrete surface has gone; the beach pebbles hauled up for the mix are exposed, many of them breaking away and washing downstream.


I reckon that within two generations, three at most, the place would be barely recognisable.

Oh, how much I would love to see that.

In the night garden


Work, life and various commitments have resulted in me not getting out with Jambo until after dark recently. Which is fine; I like wandering around the gasworks or up and down the creek at night, but Newcastle at night does have a very different feel.

Moonlight on the beck

Walking under bridges at night should be scarier than it actually is – there are all those thick concrete pillars for Bad Men to hide behind, and dark shadows and weird noises – but I don’t ever feel particularly uncomfortable. The exception is the Griffiths Road bridge – the one by the pedestrian lights where people cross to get into the Entertainment Centre. Being four lanes across, the road at this point is much wider than, say, the bridge crossings at Chatham Road or Broadmeadow Road. The result is a much deeper, longer tunnel effect and there’s a point where you’re really under the Griffiths Road bridge. It’s darker and, when you’re at the mid-point and it’s as far to go back as it is to keep going, I do feel a sense of unease.

And yet when I do actually meet people I don’t feel threatened by them. Coming upstream from Islington I met four young guys, just dark, hooded silhouettes until we were almost on one another. I think they were more surprised to meet me than I was to meet them; we muttered a few greetings and kept going our separate ways. The tide was coming in and so they might have gotten stuck at the railway bridge. If they did, I think they stopped and made this:


The gasworks is a much more friendly place, any time of day or night. When there were squatters in the old wash-up building I used to avoid that area. There were needles and junk and it had a generally bad vibe, but no one’s been resident in there for ages now.


The scariest thing that might happen is to nearly stand on a brown quail; when they burst out from beneath your feet you really know about it. But night-time always offers something different. On hot nights I’ve watched endless lines of bats swooping to drink from the creek. Owls often sweep the lantana thickets in the gasworks. After rain I’ll hear three different types of frog singing and croaking in the newly formed ponds (an expert, or someone with the Namoi CMA’s Croaker app (thanks, Neil), would hear more).

It’s March and soon the evenings will be much cooler. I’m looking forward to autumn’s windy, moonless nights, the kind of nights when, as a kid, I’d see my dad getting his lamp and shotgun out of the cupboard. Love the night garden.

What a shower


There used to be a cast iron bathtub beneath this showerhead  but the other day it vanished. Hmm. It’s actually better now. You can stand underneath it and pull the handle and pretend to be having a shower and sing Johnny Cash songs into the growing dusk while your dog stares at you in puzzlement, if you’re that kind of person. As if! I mean, who’d do that?!


There are a few more of these showers in the ELGAS depot, but in better condition. I think they must be some kind of OH&S thing: “Should you find yourself drenched in naphtha whilst smoking a Cuban cigar, avoid combustion and instant incineration by standing beneath shower and yanking hard on handle”. It’d probably be more effective than this alternative.


As we head into autumn we’ve had a last blast of warm weather. This has meant that the coal tar lurking at about 3 metres below the surface of the gasworks (and, hence, at creek level) is moving about more freely than it does in winter. This inspection cap is positively frothing in a way that always reminds me of subterranean river of slime in Ghostbusters II. I found this little disc next to it. At first I thought it was a casino chip but it’s made out of aluminium. Answers on a postcard.


I was thinking, as I waved at the Westpac rescue helicopter thocka-thocka-thocking over the gasworks, that the concrete naphtha container would be nowhere near as photogenic if POAS and CUBE hadn’t put their roll-ups on there.


Being a vandal must be much harder work than we ordinary, non-painting folk imagine. I came across these two chairs tucked away beneath the railway bridge. Someone carried these chairs all the way to this little cubby. Not one chair, but two. And then arranged them Shaker-style with backs to the wall as though this concrete block beneath the Dungog rattler was actually a rather comfortable parlour, a place to pause and roll a durrie with a good friend, in between banging out tags and roll-ups.


This world teems with people and events beyond the limited scope of my imagination.

Something’s afoot


Last year, Jemena Pty Ltd (the Melbourne-based gas retailer and owner of the Clyde Street gasworks) threw a bit of money at the site. Bores were sunk so that monitoring could take place of the pollution levels in the water table, the old admin building had fresh panes of glass installed (which were promptly knocked out) and there was an effort to keep the lantana and grass down to a point where they weren’t a terrifying fire hazard to the folk next door at ELGAS.


Then it all went quiet.

Well, they’re at it again.


First, a big black rainwater tank appeared, and now this lot. Viro soil? Huh? Google isn’t much help. Does anyone out there know what on earth viro soil is? Is is like enviro soil, but even more concentrated and awesome? Or could is it that the nice lad with the texta forgot to scrawl “en” in front of “viro”?

I’m very interested to see what a couple of tanks of viro soil will do to the place.  There’s so much coal tar soaked through the soil that it would cost a mint to rehabilitate the whole site. If any reminder were needed of just how industrial it was, then check this out:

gas holders clyde street

Russell put me onto this pic in a previous post. It really is quite amazing to see the gigantic gas holders dwarfing the admin building. And what’s that two-storey building in the background, on Chatham Road or Emerald Street?

As an aside, I’ve just finished reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life. He covers gas production and coal tar (p. 179, if you’re keen) and I was interested to see how coal tar was converted into kerosene, and how it was, in Bryson’s words, “the basis of the modern chemical industry”.

Leaving us with a postmodern mess to clean up. Go viro soil!