The recent three part ABC documentary Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire was a meticulous piece of investigative journalism that confirmed many of the rumours that had existed for decades following the horrendous Luna Park inferno. That it took some 40 odd years to see the light of day says a lot about the depth of the original conspiracy and cover up and the way the law operates in NSW.
Lucy Desoto is a musician, songwriter, filmmaker and writer who spent endless hours transcribing the cassette interviews that Martin Sharp recorded following the fire. This is how she recalls what has now become a pivotal moment in the history of Sydney.
“In 1979 I was the editor of the Sydney University Union Recorder. At 19 years of age, I was an Arts student, surveying the future with certainty for a life-long career in journalism. Inspired by the radical, independent press at the time, The National Times, and The Living Daylights in particular, these were the ignition to my ambition, believing like all defiant people, I could change the world and of course I thought I could, because I was young and wise to the reactionary philistinism of the older generation man.
Early in the year, I decided to ask Martin Sharp if he’d talk to me about his affiliation with Luna Park. The lease there was contested and he’d recently been making appearances again in the media, decrying shady deals and nefarious influences that were scheming to undermine the existence of Luna Park. I was intrigued and found his phone number in the White Pages, called to ask if he’d be interested in speaking to me for a feature article in the Union Recorder. Of course he said, “yes, be delighted, come over, here’s the address.”
I arrived at his house, Wirian, and remember being slightly anxious, the gravel crunching underfoot as I made my way to the imposing front doors at the bottom of the circular driveway. Martin opened the big doors almost as soon as I knocked, as if he were standing behind it waiting for me. He had brilliant blue flashing eyes, a paintbrush in his mouth, smiling with another paintbrush in his hand, and in the other hand a joint of hash. He said “hello, come in, was just going to make a cup of tea, would you like one?”
We spent the rest of the afternoon in deep conversation in his studio, which had previously been a very grand formal dining room. Sitting at the huge table littered with his drawings, papers, newspapers, pencils, paints, paintbrushes, photographs, souvenirs and other paraphernalia, we smoked continuously and drank tea. I watched him paint while we talked of many things and I made notes. Eventually, as it was getting dark it was time for me to leave. Martin walked me out and across the road where I waited for a taxi. He said “would you like to come back and help me transcribe some of the cassettes I’ve made with Tiny Tim?” Of course I said yes and that was the beginning of a lovely friendship.
Months later, on June 9, 1979 I was having dinner with a friend in a flat in Lower Fort Street, at The Rocks. The old flats were slumped under the southern pylon of the Harbour Bridge over-looking the gleaming dark waters of the harbour. We sat together at the table by the window that winter night, watching the blaze at Luna Park, burning, burning, speculating as to what it meant, but we knew it could only be very bad news. A heavy cold feeling lodged itself in my sternum that revisits me even now when I think about that night.
The next day I went back to Wirian to see Martin but the place was locked up and silent as a tomb. Returning a few days later, there were lots of people in the house again, as usual, but the atmosphere was deeply somber. People came and went quickly and quietly. Martin told me the police were interfering with evidence. He told me they had scraped the site clean, and that as far as the police were concerned, the six children and the father who’d been incinerated in the blaze, were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were saying it was an accident, an electrical fault, but why the rush to remove any trace of evidence?
Martin undertook his own investigation into the fire immediately. Among a handful of trusted friends, I worked closely with him to do everything to help him bring the truth to light. He asked me to transcribe many of the cassette tapes he made. The ledgers of my transcriptions in the cupboard where Martin archived all the evidence, furnished much of the material for a recent ABC documentary. These hand-written transcriptions were of conversations Martin had with the witnesses, police, fire brigade, survivors, park workers, politicians including Neville Wran and crooks including Abe Saffron. We all knew the fire was deliberately lit and the outcome of that arson was the murder of six innocent children and a father.
As the months moved on, we realised the extent of the cover-up, and we became scared of reprisals, as every avenue for justice was blocked by corruption and lame officials. One night Martin said to me, if anything ever happens to me I’m making duplicates of everything, to be held in a safe with my solicitor. Later that night there was an explosion outside, and the retaining wall along the driveway collapsed, damaging the cars parked there. We were all scared for good reason. Of course, the official cover-up was so thorough, all Martin could do in the end, was to play the long game.
I’d like to thank Jason Holman for finally releasing the evidence that Martin Sharp collected and cared for so dedicatedly and devotedly. As a result of Martin Sharp’s determination the ABC documentary, Exposed: The Ghost Train Fire exists as a gift and a balm to the wounded soul of the City of Sydney. The terror of those days, though they robbed me of my respect for authority, and my faith in a just society, taught me the difference between representation and reality. I dropped out, discarding my ambitions for talking truth to power through journalism, but I’ve had a wonderful time on the road less travelled. Thank you Martin.