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I felt like a poet in a rotting garret

Georgina Street today, hardly changed from 1967.

Sydneysider: A personal journey

Georgina Street, Newtown, 1967

Sometime late in 1980 or early ’81, when I was driving taxis full time, I dropped off a fare in Mosman and scored a radio job from Neutral Bay to Newtown. It was about 7am when I picked up the actor John Meillon. He hopped in the front seat, unzipped the shoulder bag he was carrying and cracked open a beer. He would have been 46 at the time, but he looked like a wasted 65. Meillon was by repute a snaky dipsomaniac and as we drove across the bridge, he held forth on the ridiculousness of Lindy Chamberlain’s claim that a dingo had lately removed her baby from a tent at Uluru.

“Whereabouts in Newtown are we going?” I inquired, and he asked if I knew where Georgina St was.

“Sure do,” I replied, “First place I lived when I left home. Haven’t been there in years”.

Meillon told me Georgina St was to play the part of a street faced with destruction in a new Aussie film loosely based on the events surrounding the death of Juanita Neilson and the Victoria St demolitions, and this was the first day of shooting (Directed by Phil Noyce, it was released in 1982 as Heatwave).

When we arrived half an hour later, the street was already a hive of activity. I dropped Meillon just opposite where Hollywood director Alex Proyas now lives.

The place looked pretty much as it had when I’d moved there in 1967 (it still looks pretty much the same today). I was in my first year at Sydney University and one evening after a row with my mother, I’d thrown my few vital possessions into my Goggomobil coupe and driven away from the family home in Strathfield, never to return for more than a visit. I had no idea where I might sleep that night so I drove to Sydney University and wandered around an almost deserted Fisher Library until I found a fellow student who I knew rented a bedsit in Newtown. He was delighted by the prospect of help with the rent.

My friend was from Canberra and his bedsit had been the first floor master bedroom of one of the imposing Victorian terraces midway along the south side of Georgina St. The room was large but dilapidated, with a high ceiling, imposing plasterwork and two pairs of half-glazed doors opening onto a generous balcony with iron lace. It was very sparsely furnished. My friend slept in what was termed a three-quarter bed (common then, but almost unknown now) set against the wall between the balcony doors and I had a very old iron single bed in one corner beside a magnificent marble fireplace. An old wooden table, a couple of chairs, a cheap wardrobe, a worn deco lounge and a small marble-topped Victorian sideboard, which served us for food preparation, littered the space. We had no refrigerator, but because this was one of the better rooms, there was an ancient upright gas stove and even a powerpoint. The bathroom, common to several of the bedsits, was just down the hall. It was the sort of place a lot of students lived in, unless they had very rich parents and were put up in the socially conservative, politically reactionary, and vilely misogynist university colleges.

The terrace had been built with the senior university academic market in mind, but like so many of the big Victorian terraces of the inner city, it had fallen on hard times after the First War, gone downhill in the Great Depression and been converted to bedsits after the 1939-45 rematch. The  house was a dark warren of rooms, mostly occupied by poor and lonely characters. One I remember in particular: a old Scot, with an almost incomprehensible brogue, with whom I sometimes tried to converse. His was one of the rooms without cooking facilities, so he used a common stove and table located in the downstairs hallway. His great topic of conversation was Robbie Burns. Often, as I walked to the bathroom, I’d hear him practicing his spiel all by himself: “Rrrrabbbie Burrrnns – the gggrreatest philosopher tha’ ever lived.”

Our balcony looked out into the big Moreton Bay figs that still grace the median strip. You could almost touch them and at night they were full of flying foxes, which I’d never seen before. Downhill we had a view of Hollis Park and diagonally across the road there was a synagogue, which really was something exotic.

At the age of 18, I’d landed in the decayed, pre-gentrification, inner suburbs. It was all fantastically glamourous and romantic. I felt like a poet in a rotting garret.

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