…where fools fear to tread.
Like my ironic switching of clausal subjects? Is there a name for that rhetorical turn?
Never mind. Here’s a story around the notion.
Long ago there was a marshy, sandy square mile of scrub between harbour, racecourse, city and surf. It was thankless, natural banksia swamp, when nobody liked swamps or anything too natural. After draining, it became public parkland, dominated by fat paperbarks and some other moisture lovers. On the elevated fringes grew pine-like trees, fig-like trees, as well as Sydney redgums and coastal wattles. Better grass was established on the flats, while tea-tree and maritime shrubs could struggle along on the sandstone shelves rising to the north. By the end of the nineteenth century, after more drainage and landscaping, Canary Palms formed long avenues across the centre, and brilliant garden displays adorned the artificial lakes, which were thronged with water birds.
Finally, in the presence of visiting English royals, with Sunday-dressed crowds and fanfares, the Park was defined, named, declared and so on. The city would have its “lungs” forever.
Within its boundaries, there were the usual structures: statues, pavilions, walls, rails. Yet those things were scarce and mostly of a practical nature. The city, while it loomed so close, stopped at the fence. Go build somewhere else.
Nobody said “iconic” in those days – but the Park was a special heritage. Before the Boer War, your great uncle walked you in your pram around the Grand Circuit. Sixty years on, you walked your great nephew around the Grand Circuit.
The Park was one of those big benefits-of-foresight which ought to amaze, but don’t. It was somehow hewn out by the muscle, horse power and hand tools of our near ancestors, yet the strains, the controversies, the wrangling, the sacrifices of its difficult origins are all forgotten. It’s just there, a constant, at your disposal in perpetuity. And it’s especially yours, if you took that pram ride. The suburban blow-ins, the ethnic groups with their strange picnic foods and soccer games, they are merely visiting.
By the mid-sixties, Sir Jack was premier. He was the first of the full-time professional politicians, and a professional good bloke. He cultivated the new conservatism: he was your mate, the one your wife or mother liked but did not quite approve of. He made Labor look like the stuck-up ones, the grey elite. Enjoy a beer, a bet and a yarn? So did Sir Jack.
Who was that cheeky rogue, that flirty, electric raconteur, commanding at the bar, the silver-haired one with the shorts and long socks, with the cigarette holder thrust out from his villainously grinning lips? That was Sir Jack.
Who could rule an entire state, but looked a little sheepish and submissive around certain bookmakers at Randwick? Even though he was dressed in pale silk and had a big black Ford Galaxy, a government driver, and a flash young stenographer-assistant waiting for him?
That was Sir Jack. He always needed votes, but he especially needed money, for Randwick and other private passions.
Beyond the Park’s perimeter, charming terraces and bungalows had been disappearing, mostly replaced by those countless blood-brick apartment blocks – becoming tasteful beige-brick blocks by the early seventies, also countless!
A youthful and expanding population was pressing up to the edges of that formerly unused and unwanted banksia swamp. One had the sense of a line being held, a green one.
Sir Jack mixed grand visions with his practical and profitable attitudes to development. Finishing “the flamin’ bloody Opera House” was an obsession, an understandable one. But what if the Olympic Games could be lured to Sydney in the year of the nation’s founding, 1988? And even if such did not eventuate? The city deserved the world’s finest sporting venue: a stadium and complex to make those of Melbourne look dated and shabby. (Is it true he talked of showing those South Siberians – as well as that Dunstan pansy in Adelaide – that Sydney was not just about good weather and good luck?)
By the by, Sir Jack knew some people who could build such large objects as sports stadiums. He knew them very well.
One important person Sir Jack did not know – and whose vote he never got – was a resident of the old mansion strip just off the Park’s south-west fringe. Australia’s most renowned poet, dramatist and sourpuss, Magnus Durack (knighthood refused), was not only a resident but a devoted user of the Park. It was known that he would leave and move to Adelaide, even England, if the Park should fall prey to real estate or development of any sort. Wealthy through old bush money and his literary exertions, Durack rarely approved of anybody else’s wealth or exertions. An inviolate Park was the condition of the great man’s continuance in a city that had – face it! – always been a bit light on for culture and its luminaries.
In the early 1970s, a great realignment occurred during the struggles to preserve the old parts of Australian cities. Conservation, drawn along in the wake of anti-war Protest, was suddenly prominent and more clamorous in the absence of war. The pensive classes, who had always favoured the working classes, actually met them. Union leaders, long skilled at accelerating or slowing development, depending on certain “understandings and relationships”, became essential allies of the educated conservationists, many of whom had come to relate the inner city to their student activism and a youth that must never fade.
Against communities, heritage and crumbling quaintness were ranged naked greed and heedless vulgarity : that would be Sir Jack. Why, did he not have a minister who altered the design of the Opera House, just to get the bloody thing over and done? (It actually looked better for the change, but sshh…)
In vain did Sir Jack invoke the spirit of the Opera House and visionary Danish modernism to promote his ideas for a “Rolls Royce” sports facility in the Park. Would his own heritage tack do the trick? To journalists and dignitaries gathered in the Park’s old music pavilion he recited the delicately sifted and fitted words of the government’s chief speechwriter. “As well as being the greatest arena in the southern hemisphere, the projected Olympic stadium will be an architectural and sculptural jewel laid on nature’s green breast. The design will be grand yet sympathetic, and the stadium will pay tribute to our local and state heritage, by echoing, for example, some features of this century-old bandstand in which we are presently gathered…”
Sir Jack tried to allay the ponciness of the text with a little of his trademark affability, but the effect was grotesque. The journalists and dignitaries looked uneasy or bored, and none of this crafted verbiage made it through to the news. What was quoted, however, was Sir Jack’s uncrafted crack about seeing the track at Randwick from the southern balcony of his projected stadium. If one needed any further proof of the man’s crassness…
This, on the one hand. On the other hand was a bourgeois enlightenment which would soon see accountants at open air Mozart concerts, and Lane Cove matrons protesting dams in remote Tasmania. Above all, ranged against Sir Jack and his racetrack fraternity of heritage violators, was the readership of Magnus Durack…and Magnus Durack himself!
Everyone knew that Sir Jack hated a demo. In 1966, when his limousine, with Lyndon Johnson as passenger, was blocked by protesters in Martin Place, Sir Jack said things he would regret, and which his enemies would never stop repeating. Yes, Sir Jack hated a demo…so a demo is what they gave him.
The counter-attack against Sir Jack’s Olympic vision, the Rally for Our Park, was staged in the Park, but not in sight of any structures. It was held on a grassy flat below the northern slope. The base of that rise would give a good elevation for speakers, though microphones would still be needed. The “people’s demo” was planned by a committee of well-to-do Eastern suburbs burgers, but had a suitably ragged and spontaneous air to it. There were placards, shouting, chants. Some of the journalists who had attended the official function in the bandstand not only gave coverage to the rally, but gave it their most flattering attention.
Public appearances by Magnus Durack were a rarity. His recorded interviews came after decade-long intervals, and were largely exercises in lofty forbearance on his part. When offered an award or honour, he responded by refusal or an ironically tinged acceptance which was more of a refusal than a refusal. The people who loved Durack’s work – notoriously dense, earnest and florid of expression – would no more wince at his ferocious misanthropy than they would miss a Bloomsday reading or a Francis Bacon exhibit. But everyone found the man difficult.
Durack was one of those people as likely to be infuriated by exclusion as invitation. Getting him to take a leading role in the Rally for Our Park involved much careful probing, as when an electrician must put his tool into live circuitry which has frayed and tangled. Yet the genuine threat to the Park, which he used daily, swayed him more easily than expected to emerge from his cocoon of edgy, exasperated silence. Magnus Durack would address the crowd, and that most willingly.
Before the great writer’s climactic appearance, there had been an array of speakers: barristers, actors, local councillors, opposition politicians and so on. It was rumoured that Sir Jack, who was at the track that Saturday, ascended to the upper level of the Members to watch, through his binoculars, the crowd milling in the Park, just a mile or two away. (Those who knew Sir Jack still insist he was unlikely to have expended a minute of precious track time on a demonstration against him, however large or hostile.)
Magnus Durack finally stood to address the crowd, and received a special applause, loud but evenly pitched, without hoots or whistles.
Tall and imposing, with a cascading rock-face, in age he looked not unlike those stern myth-figures of Albert Tucker and other Angry Penguin artists. But Durack’s eyes had a reserve of anger that was his alone, his smile was amused despair. The world had disappointed Magnus Durack, and it would be told so once again.
Then disaster, at least in the circumstances.
As Durack began his discourse, the wind picked up in irregular but powerful gusts, blowing some of his words away. Next, the amplifier or microphone began to cut out and then in again. For a moment it seemed like Sir Jack’s famous luck had descended as an electronic curse.
Yet the effect of the mishap would be unexpected.
Durack’s speaking had never matched his writing. Worse, his unprepared conversation and commentary tended to be halting and cliche-ridden, for lack of the great labour he applied to each phrase of his written work (which was a baroque goo, perhaps, but which impressed). But now, with only isolated loud words penetrating unevenly through to the huddled crowd, his address was like an abstract poem, with cosmic complaint as its theme. “The rape…utter… depth…violation…deepest…sense…deep…quest…identity…profoundest…loss… profoundest…rage…Mammon or…”
What the wind and electronic malfunction spared formed a patch quilt of sound and ideas far more effective than a mere speech. Magnus Durack had at last reached the masses – though not those impoverished masses of his socialist dream – through accidental art, after decades of laboured artifice. Only when the microphone was fixed, right at the end of his address, did his sentences become their leaden, cliched selves:
“My friends, fools will rush in where angels fear to tread. You are the angels, who must hold out the money-mad fools; you must guard and hold the gates of these precious five hundred acres…”
But it was already too late for Sir Jack and his Olympic vision.
The Park was saved.
Within a few years, the state had a Labor premier, and one who made Sir Jack and his kind look like gorging hobos who had strayed into Chez Maxim. Paul Furst was, to use a term popular at the time, a Renaissance man. With his tight grooming and rigorously updated tastes in all things, Furst appealed to the insolent money and old money. His working class origins and rugged features gave him the votes of the working classes, but also those of the inner-urban gentry, who lean left, love a flirt with rough trade, and who dominate the media and academia.
In some circles there was unease. Sydney was not like Adelaide, with its cultured and earnest politicians. It was not accustomed to state regimes without what might be called “special connections and understandings”. Very briefly, many people connected with construction, gambling, policing and such things grew concerned that Sydney now had an Adelaide-style premier, what with all that cultural flair and wine-sipping.
Within weeks their minds were set at ease, as developers, bookmakers and people engaged in nocturnal entertainment and the like were told to deliver the same bundles, though perhaps to different destinations. In fact, more and bigger bundles were expected. Sydney was still Sydney where it counted, namely, its famed Underbelly; but now it had a touch of Imperial Vienna – and had its own lavish Grand Ducal figure in Macquarie Street.
With a new Romanticism dawning after protest and liberation, Natur und Kunst, Nature and Art, were indeed themes of the early Furst government. “Whatever is being stoked in the engine room, Environment and Culture lead the ball on the upper decks of the ship of state ,” wrote Beatrice Wayling, a Furst adorer and occasional social commentator for the Sydney Morning Herald. Sir Jack and his cronies seemed to belong not just to a previous decade but a previous millennium.
And speaking of millennia…
Two dates began to dominate the collective Sydney mind: 2000, for obvious reasons, and 1988, because that was the bicentennial of the year British ships arrived in Botany Bay with a cargo of convicts – before taking the whole lot a little further north to Port Jackson.
Sydney lives for distraction, and it was inevitable that the celebrations and monuments for 1988 would be planned well and planned long in advance. A reclaimed banksia swamp between Botany Bay and Port Jackson would certainly be involved. 1988 would be a Grand Moment for the Park.
The Furst government was eager to create advisory bodies concerned with the culturally conspicuous. It was rewarding employment for rewarding friends, certainly, but few projects slept in committee – not while Gary “Shanners” Shanahan was Minister for Development, Transport and Communications.The city was given attractively marked but perilous cycleways; a bendy monorail which overhung the city centre but went nowhere in particular; ambitious harbourside developments where the fads for corrugated iron and the mock-maritime met across stark plazas. This hasty Renaissance involved some spending and borrowing, but Paul “Prince” Furst and Shanners Shanahan had sniffed the winds of the 1980s. There would be no culture without action, but no action without its dose of culture.
As to the cost…it was the 1980s! What could go wrong?
The Park, which had been administered remotely, some said sleepily, from Macquarie Street, was given its own administration, or, to use a word heard more and more in that neo-liberal era, its own management. Feminist and consultant Beatrice Wayling, now a shoulder-padded adviser to the Furst government, advised a “corrective emphasis” on females with qualifications in the arts and ecology for the staffing of the new Park management.
To house the new in situ administration, smart “heritage referenced” offices of glass and corrugated iron were built in a discreet spot in the Park’s centre. An elevated concrete driveway for vehicles was added as “erosion prevention”. Its scale and placement, as with the offices it served, was described as “sensitive”.
Now that there was an administration, there were many meetings which raised many problems or, as one said then, “issues”.
Natural tracks which had been used for access for more than a century were detected as “erosion hotspots”. They were either closed off, or refashioned as broad flights of steps, incorporating brick and timber described as “sympathetic” in appearance.
There was little to be done about the venerable rugby and cricket grounds on the Park’s western side, or the large groups of training cyclists and athletes, though, as Beatrice Wayling had pointed out, the beneficiaries were an overwhelming male majority. Since organised sport could not be supplanted, alternatives needed to be furnished. An extensive report by Beatrice Wayling, handed personally to Premier Furst at a semi-official gathering with the right kinds of media people, had recommended a statewide initiative to combine organic play with grass roots art as a “millennial recreational and social policy for governments going forward”.
It was time for Arts In Our Park, “a NSW government funded bicentennial and millennial initiative, with emphases on indigenous and gender themed plastic arts”. The member of Park staff who conceived the program, Jennifer Herdegren-Lynch, was nominated for NSW Adminstrator of the Year. (The award was actually won by Gaylene Saunders-Archibald, for her State Archive microfiche work.)
Soon, statues and installations of all sorts dotted the more heavily used areas of the Park. Barry Dexter, chief horticulturist, was proud to point out that not a twig or a leaf had been disturbed in the process of setting up so many weighty and irregular items across such a large area. For some weeks, people could be seen pausing to view some of the works. Soon, in the way of such things – after accidents, vandalism, parrot attacks, pigeon and sun exposure – the art works became a kind of familiar clutter, always in sight, but seldom seen.
(It should be noted that, after some controversy over whether competitive awards were in the spirit of the Wayling guidelines, the United Coal Prize for best work went to Andrea and Stanislav Doyle-Szabo, for their collaboration “Exiles from Nature”. The Fosters Lager Indigenous Award went to Davina Wirra Wirra for “Invasion 2”.)
As the bicentennial drew near, many more projects got underway, proclaimed by lavish signage along motorways and train lines, wherever the NSW government could use its own space.
In that period, every function or gathering needed to be a quasi-patriotic event. It was not just government. When advertisers wanted to promote beer or soft drink, they assembled crowds, with freckles, suncream, flags and larrikin grins, to fairly riot for the products.
The Park needed a venue for mass events, but one with that intangible called “tone”. When the right idea was finally mooted by Zoe Eleftheriou-Potts, the Park’s media liaison, it rang so true that there was instant and universal accord. From the Park admin to the very top of government, all applauded such a timely yet timeless notion.
Of course! The Park must have its own open air Greek theatre!
The site suggested itself. Above the rise where Magnus Durack had spoken, there was a natural spring, mostly dry after the wet seventies. Just there, where the land levelled out again, was a perfect area to accommodate a low and, of course, sympathetic circle of brick seating. There would be room for standing audiences as well, after more excavation.
The spring was stopped, and the theatre built. The first night was Oedipus Rex, performed by Tristan Bell and Gia Papaloukas-Maguire. The storm that evening was more memorable than the Sophocles.
It was decided, after a damp, mosquito ridden Electra the following month, that the theatre should be reserved for daytime performances in the cool dry season, since there was no way to protect performers, technicians and electricals from weather – not without forfeiting the stark simplicity which had been the theatre’s raison d’etre.
On a fine June afternoon, a modern dress Antigone was disrupted by wind and traffic noise from nearby Oxford Street, then by a group of drunken Rugby League supporters.
It was decided that the Greek theatre would be ideal for school groups and kiddie shows, after certain adaptations awaiting budget. In the mean time, the overgrown brick seating erupted in parts, as tree roots sought the old spring.
With the bicentennial looming, one of the most familiar sights in the media was of an otherwise prissily dressed Gary Shanahan in hard hat and luminous work vest. Shanners was moving forward project after project. When some questioned his lack of process and procedure in granting contracts, he said things like: “It’ll soon be 1988. Do you want to celebrate it with process and procedure – or with a glittering metropolis?” Beatrice Wayling publicly defended the star minister thus: “Did Lorenzo Medici ask permission to build Saint Peters?” (Now, if Sir Jack or one of his cronies had said that…)
In the 1950s, one might serve visitors to the Park a cool pie and a warm ice-cream from a van. But surely the Grand Circuit needed a display for Australian design, produce and cuisine, somewhere one could proudly dally with a foreign tourist or dignitary. Starchitects, celebrity chefs, sommeliers put their heads together…with Shanners. Once again, Can-Do Shanners could do. Another structure was added to the Park: a restaurant truly for the 1980s, all hard surfaces, reverberation, glass, corrugated iron and flapping sailcloth. Sympathetic, harmonious, with heritage references? Could there be any doubt?
Yet something else was needed: a true and lasting “celebration of identity”.
Within the Park, there was a flat stone marking Australian Federation. It lay obscurely on a spot where a temporary pavilion of wood and plaster had stood for the 1901 ceremonies. Around the stone, where the Grand Circuit made its arc, there was a wide expanse of grass, popular with picnickers. Further toward the northern slope – where the crowd had milled to hear Magnus Durack some years before – a cricket game was played through the warm months, and nobody could remember a time when a match had not been played there. This same area was traversed each Saturday by a cross-country handicap foot race, claimed, ambitiously, to be the oldest continuing sporting fixture in Australia. The course had to be altered when the lakes were formed, and the unofficial event had existed long before that now forgotten excavation. Consequently, as the runners passed through the middle of the cricketers, the city’s oldest regular argument was repeated.
Yes, it had nostalgic charm, this expanse of grass and humanity. But if a monumental building had stood on the spot in 1901, why not in 1988? Shanners and the Prince could not think of any good reason why not.
The nation was about to turn two hundred, after all.
The old man sat slumped in his wheelchair, a wide-brimmed straw hat drawn down to protect to his face from sun – and perhaps from recognition by the crowds of weekend picnickers. Now and again a child would rush to him for a caress, or to chatter. A well dressed woman brought him wine and a plate of food, and drew the children away so the obviously frail gentleman could take his lunch without mishap.
At that moment, another elderly man in a beret walked unsteadily past, helped by a cane. In spite of infirmity, there was something sovereign in his gait.
The two stared at one another.
The man in the wheelchair spoke first. “Well, well. I don’t think we ever actually met, Mr. Durack.”
“No. This would be the first time, Mr…er…”
“Bugger it. You don’t have to call me Sir Jack. Just Jack. But call me something!”
“Very well, Jack. I didn’t know you used the Park at all.”
“All my bloody life, Magnus. My grandfather brought me here. Now I’m here with my daughter and grandkids.”
An embarrassed silence, during which Magnus Durack was likely contemplating excusing himself and moving on. Perhaps Sir Jack was hoping for as much.
At that moment, a little girl rushed to Sir Jack’s side:
“Poppy, little Jack’s gone and hidden in the spaceship again.”
“Well, tell him to come out. There’s nothing in there…” He glanced at Magnus Durack, with a faint grin, while continuing to address the child. “There’s nothing. It’s just a building that does nothing but be a building. Where we used to have park.”
Durack looked stony, as only he could, but then something like a smile cracked the granite.
“Maybe it’s a model of Shanahan’s hard hat.”
Their smiles broadened.
“You know, Magnus, some Randwick Rugby blokes relieved themselves in there. They’d been on the turps after a final. Apparently, it was an honest mistake.”
“I can see why you don’t want your grandchildren playing there.”
“Well, it won’t bloody flush, will it?”
Both of them looked mirthfully at the forbidding lump of stone and metal with its leaden symmetries. Shanners’ pissoir. Sir Jack shook his head.
“You might have been right about my Olympic plans, Magnus. What was that you said, about fools rushing in, where angels fear to tread? Money-mad fools, did you say? ”
“I seem to recall saying…something like that.”
“Trouble is, Magnus, it was your angels that rushed in and rooted the place!”