Arts & Entertainment

NAKED CITY: COFFIN ED RECALLS SYDNEY’S FORGOTTEN HISTORY – PART 1

In 1974 the legendary Afro-American saxophonist Roland Kirk was playing a concert at the Sydney Town Hall. Waiting on the steps with a number of friends I noticed the remarkable sight of three of Sydney’s most famous eccentrics about to converge in front of Woollies, directly across the road.

Approaching from George Street south was the mysterious ‘knife grinder’, a man who had been pushing a metal box on wheels around the streets of Sydney for what seemed like an eternity. Walking down Park Street was another offbeat character whose name now escapes me but a man who was famous for carrying and displaying a small Chinese fan whenever your eyes made contact. From the north of George Street, directly outside the old Town Hall Hotel came Sandor Berger, poet, publisher and a crusader famous for the placard he wore attached to his chest which shouted “Psychiatry Is An Evil And Must Be Stamped Out”.

Together the three had been endlessly traversing the streets of the Sydney CBD and maybe in some distant past they had all crossed paths, albeit totally unnoticed. Tonight however, they had an audience and with an uncanny synchronisation of the traffic lights they came together for that fleeting moment in history on the corner of Park and George. Neither acknowledged each other and they simply disappeared into the night, waiting for the law of averages to once again dictate their planetary alignment.

I remember the incident well and had always been intrigued as to what became of the three gentlemen in question. The knife grinder was around for a number of years to follow and his image even appeared in a “My City Of Sydney” promo piece on Channel 7. The man with the fan seemed to disappear soon after and as for Sandor Berger, I am not too sure.

The Internet and Google throw little light on his whereabouts in the ensuing decades and record only a number of the publications he left behind. I remember discovering a bound volume of his largely unpublished letters to the press which had found its way into the old City Of Sydney Library in the Queen Victoria Building. Berger was a prolific self-publisher of books and pamphlets ranging from erotic novels to his tirades against psychiatry. Somebody once told me he had his own printing press and at one stage had a regular spot on Darlinghurst Road in the Cross where he hawked his various publications. The story goes that one night he was attacked by a bunch of drunks and that was the last of the al fresco bookshop.

I also remember Berger confronting patrons at a screening of Ken Loach’s Family Life at the old Walker Street cinema in North Sydney during the mid 70s, feverishly handing out pamphlets and displaying his trademark body placard. I can vaguely recall talking to him once in either the Piccolo or the Coluzzi Bar but that’s where my recollection ends.

Whatever happened to Sandor Berger and what’s his life story? If you can shed any light at all this column would love to hear from you. It seems a shame that somebody like the less than exciting Arthur Stace has been immortalised in the Sydney iconography when he only wrote one word (i.e. “Eternity”). Sandor wrote millions, and whilst some survive, others have apparently been lost to the vagaries of history. He certainly deserves better.

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