From The Climate of Courage (1954)

Set in 1942, Jon Cleary’s novel follows a group of Australian soldiers who have just returned from the Middle East and are on leave in Sydney before being sent to New Guinea. Sergeant Jack Savanna, a radio announcer before the war, has met Silver Bendixter at the Anzac Buffet in Hyde Park: living at Darling Point, the Bendixters are ‘pillars of Sydney society’, well known in the gossip columns. Jack and Silver conduct a whirlwind romance in the week he has in Sydney: 

They had lunch next day at Prince’s. They sat close to a table that was fast becoming famous as the command post of certain Australian war correspondents covering the New Guinea front, and behind a table that was already famous as the command post of a genteel lady who covered the Society front. Gay young things were being industriously gay, keeping one eye on each other and one eye on the door in case a photographer appeared. Matrons pecked at their food like elegant fowls, also eyeing each other and waiting the advent of a photographer. Two suburban ladies from Penshurst, having a day out in Society, sat toying with their food and wishing they had gone to Sargent’s, where they could have had a real bog-in for less than half the price. Aside from Jack and the American correspondents, there were only one or two other men in the place, and they looked as uncomfortable as if they had been caught lunching in an underwear salon. Australian men still hadn’t learned to be at ease when outnumbered by women.

Roosevelt Nightclub, 1944 (Sam Hood, SLNSW)

Silver told Jack she had to go to a meeting that night. “It’s some sort of bond rally that my mother has organised for business girls. David Jones’ have lent their restaurant. Everyone has tea and sandwiches, then this war hero gets up and says something. After that, the idea is that the girls all rush up and buy war bonds.”

“I thought they’d rush up and lay themselves at the feet of the war hero. It has better possibilities, I mean as a spectacle.”

“Well, anyway, that cuts out dinner to-night,” she said. “Unless you want to wait until after the meeting.”

“I’ll come along and eat tea and sandwiches. Maybe afterwards, just to set the girls an example, I’ll rush up and throw myself at the war hero.”

That evening, shortly after the stores had closed, he met her outside David Jones’. They went into the big gleaming store and, in a lift crammed with chattering females who looked with an appreciative eye on Jack and a critical one on Silver, they went up to the restaurant floor. As soon as they entered the large high-ceilinged restaurant Jack saw the war hero. “You mean he’s the one who’s supposed to inspire these girls to save their money for war bonds? He’s never saved a penny in his life! I’ve kept him in spending money ever since we joined the army on the same day.”

“Who is he?” said Silver. “My mother’s a bit on the vague side. She couldn’t remember his name.”

But before Jack could tell her, the war hero had broken away from the group around him and come plunging towards them. “You old bastard, Savanna! What are you doing here?”

“After you speak, I get up and say a piece,” said Jack. “They want the girls to get both sides of the question. You, you bludger!” he said elegantly, and shook his head disgustedly. He turned to Silver. ‘This is Sergeant Morley, V.C. Miss Bendixter.”

He was glad to see that Silver remained cool and didn’t gush. “My, we are honoured tonight. A real live V.C. winner.”

“I’ll say this for him,” said Jack. “Most of them don’t stay alive.”

Jack later has a confrontation with a lieutenant who tries to stop him entering, until Jack threatens to ‘drop him down the lift well. Pips or no pips’ and the lieutenant retreats:

“You would have hit him, wouldn’t you?” Silver said. “Or thrown him down the lift well.”

“Certainly. Don’t you think he asked for it?”

“I suppose so. But here! Do you always choose such crowded places for you assassinations? And when you’re with your lady friends? I feel a little like some floosie from Paddington.”

He stopped and looked down at her. “For that last remark, I should drop you down the lift well. I don’t know why, but one thing I hadn’t expected from you was snobbishness.”

She said nothing for a moment, and he thought she was going to walk away from him. Then she put her hand in his and suddenly he was aware of a new intimacy between them. It was as if they were old lovers who had patched up a quarrel, and there was none of the awkwardness that would have been natural in view of their short acquaintance. “I’m sorry, Jack. That was something I should never have allowed myself even to think. My apologies to the girls in Paddington.”

Jon Cleary, Australian, 1917-2010

Grand Restaurant, David Jones department store, 1939 (David Jones Archives)


From The Education of Young Donald (1967)

Journalist and social critic Donald Horne writes about his father going into Callan Park Mental Hospital in 1937, when Horne was sixteen:

Douglas Grant, nurses and ex-servicemen around the World War I war memorial in the shape of the Harbour Bridge at Callan Park c1931 (Sam Hood, State Library of New South Wales)

For several days after he was “certified” we were not allowed to see him. I tried to imagine him in the Reception House, but I could not. Then we took the tram out to Callan Park, known to schoolboys as Sydney’s most famous “looney bin”, and we sat in a cold stone room with bars on its windows as if we were paying a social call on a man who was not interested in us. He was anxious that we should meet a fellow patient, whom he described as his “new friend”, and after some discussion the other patient was brought in, dressed in his street clothes like Dad. Dad and his new friend talked to each other while we sat on our hard wooden chairs and watched them.

On the morning of my last day at Parramatta High I said good-bye to our house at Westmead before I went to school. The removalists were already beginning to stack away our furniture. I avoided good-byes at school, and when lessons were over I made the long journey to Denbigh [Horne’s grandparents’ home in Kogarah] where we were going to live until we knew what was to happen to us…The next morning I woke up early, looking at the shapes of our stacked-up furniture as they defined themselves against the dawn, and then went, with indifference, to my new school, Canterbury High…   

Wall of Callan Park Hospital (History Council of New South Wales)

By now Dad had been moved into one of the Repatriation wards, each of them a separate building, at the end of the grounds of Callan Park. To reach these we would walk through the rest of the hospital, past buildings with barred windows, and past a big stone enclosure, like an animal pit at the zoo, where insane women in blue hospital uniforms were crowded, ignoring each other as they talked to themselves or stared out into nothing. Whenever we walked past them I looked at them sideways, ashamed of my curiosity at their misfortune, but unable not to examine it. Although I knew I was in a madhouse, and although I was afraid of everyone I saw, nevertheless when anyone spoke to me I was always startled to recognize that this person was insane. The grass was trimmed, the paths were freshly swept, there were flowers in the garden beds; if one looked away from the barred windows and the women’s stone pit it all seemed as normal as a public park. A well-dressed woman came up to me. She was carrying a copy of the Saturday Evening Post. She began to talk in an apparently normal way, in an educated voice. She was telling me about a conspiracy against her, a conspiracy mounted by words that were not even words, and she was drawing a diagram on the magazine to prove it, sketching it out quickly and methodically. I kept on listening to her, afraid of her, but politely making conversation about her diagram. Even when Dad came out of the ward with Mum she would not go away. Yet she looked as if she was dressed for a quiet day’s shopping in town. On these journeys to Callan Park I chilled my emotions, trying to notice nothing, and noticing things nevertheless.

Donald Horne, Australian, 1921-2005

From Outcasts in White Australia – 2 (1971)

C.D. Rowley details the findings of a survey into conditions among Sydney’s Aboriginal community:

Mrs Pamela Beasley made at the beginning of 1964 an interim report on conditions in the RedfernChippendale area. She found over 500 persons willing to be interviewed as Aboriginal, in a small area including part of Redfern and part of Chippendale, both run-down inner city areas where factories have been rapidly replacing dwellings. Over 46 per cent of her population were children under fifteen years – a figure well above the census average for the Australian community but well below the proportion established by sample surveys of Aboriginal families in rural areas. There were very few old people, for obvious reasons. Of the adults, only three were in employment which could be classed as skilled. Of 103 dependent on employment, fourteen were unemployed at the time of interview. On the average two persons lived in each room, including kitchens as living rooms. One family owned a house and two more were in the process of purchasing theirs. High rents were common by the rent standards of that time:


In spite of the hospitality of most of the Aboriginal people in the area, there were some who had great difficulty in solving their accommodation problems, and were without places to sleep for periods ranging from one day to a week or two. Some of these solved their problem in ways which could not be accepted by white authorities. Some ‘squatted’ in temporarily untenanted homes, leaving by the back door and over the fence if a knock came at the front door. Some walked around the streets for a few nights before being ‘smuggled’ into a residential where there were already one or two ‘stowaways’. Some left luggage with friends and split up among different homes for the night, or nights, involved. Their difficulty would seem to be no reflection upon the willingness of their friends and relatives to help them, but rather upon the housing situation as it exists in the area.


Reasons for coming to Sydney were stated as:

            A. To find work                       99

            B. To find accommodation  65

            C. Illness of self or relative  81

            D. Social                                 15

            E. Other reasons                  13

Charles Perkins on bus to Tranby Aboriginal College, Glebe, c. 1964. (Robert McFarlane, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra)

It was noted that fifty-one of the total of 208 children were ‘not living with parents or with one parent normally responsible for their care and up-bringing’. In forty-three cases, the reasons offered, in order of importance, were lack of accommodation, removal by the Child Welfare authority, and illness. Extended family arrangements accounted for only six such cases, where the child was stated to be residing with grandmother.

Just half the adults included in the survey had been living in this area for over three years. Other evidence indicates two directions of movement out from such areas – back to the country town or into the outer suburbs. This was a typical area for Aboriginal experiment in big city life.

Some later work by Mrs Pamela Beasley indicates that those families which do establish homes in the capital are likely, on the average, to be better off for living space than they were in the country area, for it is simply not possible to live in a fringe-dweller’s shack in the city. The only ‘self-built’ shacks seen were on the Aboriginal reserve (and just off it) at La Perouse, which is a fringe-dwellers’ settlement now surrounded by the expanding city, and illustrating many of the social problems of such dwelling areas. For the city as a whole, Mrs Beasley found an average sized of 5.5 rooms, somewhat below the urban average for New South Wales, but well above that for Aboriginal housing found in our rural survey. Yet there were 1.25 persons per room as compared with 0.67, the Australian average in 1961. (Our rural average was 1.63.) Even in the better conditions of Sydney there was a good deal of obvious overcrowding, with over 70 percent of Aborigines subject to accommodation pressure of two or more persons per room. Here again, the situation was favourable when compared with our country town sample.

 C.D. Rowley, Australian, 1906-1985

From Outcasts in White Australia – 1 (1971)

Public servant and academic C.D. (Charles) Rowley was principal of the Australian School of Pacific Administration from 1950 to 1964, where Australian administrators of the Territory of Papua New Guinea were trained. In 1964 he accepted a three-year appointment to the Social Science Research Council of Australia, Canberra as director of a project to study Aborigines in Australian society, resulting in his books The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971). They would help to determine the agenda of the Whitlam Federal Labor government. In a chapter on ‘Metropolitan Urbanisation in “Settled” Areas’, he looks at why Aboriginal people came to Sydney:

The urban drift into Sydney seems to have become an item for press articles from about 1948, when the Superintendent of the Methodist Mission in South Sydney began to speak of the special problems being faced in the inner suburbs of Redfern and Surry Hills. By 1950 the Redfern All Blacks football team was said to be drawing large crowds on Sunday afternoons, though a few years later this effort to express pride of the Aboriginal group was to be questioned as contrary to the to the requirements of assimilation! Another indicator of an incipient Aboriginal community feeling in the inner suburb was the increased membership of religious organisations which had welcomed Aborigines in the rural areas. Pentecostalism was being strengthened in the city. The Church of the Four Square Gospel, one of whose missionaries I was to meet at Condobolin during the field work for this book, was one of the rallying points for those who sought comfort and support. A trained social worker who was also a Congregational Pastor in Redfern and working with Aboriginal people told me that a main attraction into the city was the hope of permanent employment; that those he met had seldom had permanent work in the areas from which they came. Those who remained, he thought, generally obtained permanent work in the end. He estimated a period of hardship and adaptation to be commonly one or two years, at the end of which time those at least who received some help had generally obtained a house and employment. By inference, then, the inner city areas were serving to some extent as staging areas. There would now be few, if any, suburbs in Sydney which do not have families of Aboriginal descent.

Urbanisation was in full swing during the term of the research for this Project. One found that people in distant parts of New South Wales, for instance, would know certain addresses in Sydney where a person without a bed could always at least get a ‘shake-down’ on the floor. I remember well discussing the point with a typical motherly Aboriginal woman in a street in Redfern, whose response to my question was simple and humane, ‘You can’t let them sleep on the footpath, can you?’

Cover of 1972 Pelican Books edition.

By 1964 the effects of rationalisation in rural industries had begun to combine with those of the drought. There was a much-publicised inspection by pressmen of inner city areas at the end of August. Perhaps the migration pattern was illustrating the real weakness of a vague ‘assimilation’ policy; since if assimilation was the aim, it could be reasonably argued that the Aboriginal slum-dweller was living like some non-Aborigines. In an interesting statement on the 1963 debate which led to the removal of restrictions on alcohol in New South Wales, the Member for Armidale argued that, though the rates of increase were high, migration to the city was taking from the rural areas half the number of annual increase (which could only have been a wild guess); that in the city there were being accepted as ‘white’; that this was the story which should be told rather than that of old injustices.

By 1964, however, distress was becoming more obvious in Sydney, and a matter for editorials and headlines, but nobody knew the size of the problem. When the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs announced the purchase of a 3-story building in July 1964, [Professor W.R.] Geddes estimated that the numbers in the city were from 6,000 to 12,000; but until a count is made, using a referral technique, an accurate estimate is impossible.

C.D. Rowley, Australian, 1906-1985

From Singo (2002)

US-born former TV journalist and news producer Gerald Stone in his biography of Sydney advertising man John Singleton describes Singleton’s seemingly unlikely friendship with the Reverend Bill Crews:

Reverend Bill Crews and John Singleton at Loaves and Fishes Restaurant in Ashfield. (Brett Costello, News Corp)

‘John hates to admit it but in a funny way, he is quite religious,’ Crews smiles. ‘He reminds me a lot of King David. We’re told David was a real bastard, you know, but God loved him.’

At Crews’ mention of King David, I think to myself what an excellent choice. If Singleton could be compared to any character in history, that’s the one. David was, of course, the little boy who was brave and resourceful enough to kill Goliath; but he was also much more than that. He was the absolute larrikin of the Old Testament, filled with mischief. When his future father-in-law, King Saul, ordered him to bring back the foreskins of 100 Philistines as the price for marrying his daughter – a mind-boggling task by any measure – David somehow manages to come back with 200! He was a notorious womaniser who grabbed the beautiful but married Bathsheba for his own by ordering her warrior husband to certain death in battle. With a few drinks in him, he was also known to whip off his clothes and dance naked in front of a throng of admiring maidens. He tempted the wrath of God constantly with such misbehaviour, but always found a way to win back Divine favour with an audacious deed or, better yet, a few well-chosen words. David, like John Singleton, was a brilliant copywriter. His psalms were the jingles of his day, proclaiming the greatness of the Lord.

Crews acknowledges that some of his clerical colleagues in the Uniting Church and any number of his parishioners have been scandalised by his friendship with that ‘dreadful’ Singleton. Like Ted Noffs before him, he refuses to pass judgement when he knows how little can separate the best from the worst in a man.

‘I think it’s all part of being such a passionate person,’ Crews suggests. ‘People of that nature aren’t quite sure where they fit in because their negative passions are as strong as their positive – both come from the same source. So it can be very difficult for them. A section of the community sees John as capable of behaving badly and he probably has convinced himself he is too. But the fact is he has this intensely religious streak. Sometimes I’m sure he does things just to prove to himself he’s not a goody-goody!’

Singleton, to this day, occasionally drops by the Loaves and Fishes just to show support by his presence and chat with the patrons. At lunch hour the rows of tables are filled with those on hard times: the unemployed, the homeless, the elderly or disabled, battered old winos and pale-faced young drug addicts, or people who are just plain lonely and desperate for company.

Crews especially remembers one day when Singleton told a group of men: ‘Well, guys, today I’m up so I can help you. Tomorrow I might be down and I might need help from you.’ Which, as the minister points out, was not as far-fetched as it might seem. A lot of the people he dealt with had the rebellious spirit of Singo – a compulsion to push their limits and test their luck. It was really a very thin line dividing the high and mighty from the down and outs.

‘If they’re up, they’ve succeeded; if they’re down, they didn’t. There’s really not all that much difference either way.’ So says a man who has witnessed human nature from every angle.

Crews and Singleton organised a breakfast program for children in Redfern’s Aboriginal community:

Portrait of two men on Eveleigh Street Redfern, 2003 (Patricia Baillie, City of Sydney Archives)

 ‘the Block’, as it was known, had developed into something akin to a war zone. Expecting a hostile reception, at least to begin with, they wisely decided to swap Singleton’s Bentley for a ute when they visited the embattled area to begin negotiations with local community leaders. As they wandered around, their worst fears seemed about to come true. A hostile looking drunk staggered up to Singleton.

‘You’re John Singleton?’

‘Yeah, mate’

‘Your horse didn’t do too well on Saturday?’

From then on, Crews remembers, it was much like the Loaves and the Fishes, where the millionaire businessman showed a stunning ability to communicate on any level. ‘The next minute, honestly, there are half a dozen Aborigines with the arses out of their jeans, and they’re all of them sitting in the dirt with Singleton talking about horses. It was just amazing.’

They got their breakfast project off to a promising start, using a caravan painted in the red and green colours of the South Sydney football club to make it more acceptable to the Redfern kids. Eventually the program was handed over to a local church group.

  -Gerald Stone, American-Australian, 1933-2020

From Keating (2015) – 2

In his 2015 interviews with Kerry O’Brien, former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating describes being approached by Canadian newspaperman Conrad Black, who told him in 1992 that Kerry Packer had acquired 23.5 per cent of the Fairfax Media organisation, owners of the Sydney Morning Herald, despite being restricted by media ownership rules to 14.9 per cent:

PJK: When I checked, Black was correct. Packer’s organisation had taken advice from some barrister specialising in media law who found what they thought was a loophole. From memory, Packer was in Argentina playing polo, so I spoke to one of his representatives and said ‘Conrad Black’s been to see me and I understand Consolidated Press has 23.5 per cent of Fairfax.’

The answer came back immediately. ‘That’s right.’

I said, ‘You understand what the law says? The prescribed limit is 14.9.’

He said, ‘Everything we are doing is legal.’

I said, ‘You may think so but I made the law so I have a particular interest in its maintenance, which means your interest in Fairfax must return to 14.9 per cent.’

He replied, ‘Well, as long as you understand that will mean war, I’ll relay the message.’

…I said, ‘Well, conflict is what I do.’

KOB: This was actually reported at the time in the Sydney Morning Herald. ‘I told Packer yesterday I was in the conflict business. I don’t take the troubles. I give them to people like that.’

PJK: Yes, I said ‘conflict is what I do.’ I then asked Michael Lee, who had become Communications Minister, to get an amendment together and I saw Cheryl Kernot and the Democrats and pushed it very quickly through both Houses, which meant the loophole Packer was using was shut off.

I came to understand that Kerry wanted to control Fairfax to get square with the journalists he believed had gone after him maliciously over the references to him in the National Times under a code name in the Costigan Royal Commission. I understood his anger but we had a media diversity policy that he was not entitled to break…

Paul Keating and Kerry Packer (AAP/Reuters)


I’m the only person in public life who ever took Packer on. Ever. This was a person who wielded great influence over a succession of governments, and not one single individual in the polity ever crossed swords with him. I not only crossed swords with him, I gave him a number of beltings. I wanted to make it clear to Packer, you may think we are a bunch of toadies there to do your bidding, but not me.

But Packer came after me after I’d left politics. If you read Niki Savva’s account in her book of how Paul Lyneham volunteered to do Packer’s bidding on the piggery claims against me, aided and abetted by the former Liberal Party President Tony Staley, you’ll see this was all payback for stopping his attempts to control Fairfax…I then lobbied Brian Harradine and a number of other senators to stop the cross-media rule change in the Senate.

A journalist said to me at the time, ‘Mr Keating, are you going to take a defamation action against Channel Nine and Mr Packer?’

I said, ‘No, I have much more expensive remedies in mind for him.’

The remedy I had in mind was to beat the cross-rule amendments in the Senate, which I succeeded in doing…

All those Sydney Morning Herald journalists who went on and on about my delinquency as far as the Herald’s interests were concerned forget the fact that I stopped two major proprietors getting hold of Fairfax. One was Rupert Murdoch, who sought my support in 1995 to take control of the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age and the Financial Review, and the second was Packer’s creeping ownership with a view to controlling the whole organisation, at which point I have no doubt he would have wrought vengeance on some of those same journalists.

KOB: When you knocked Murdoch back, how did he react?

PJK:…I said, ‘Rupert, the thing is, you own the current stable of newspapers. No one else is going to buy them from you, and while ever you own them, whether they’re in trust or not, we can never think of you owning any of the other mastheads.’

KOB: Did he accept that with equanimity?

PJK:  He didn’t remonstrate about it at the time but I think Ken Cowley [head of his Australian operation] had conditioned him that that was the answer he would likely get.

KOB: Was there a difference between Murdoch and Packer in that regard, as personalities? There was always that bullying side to Packer that he was notorious for. He could be charming one minute and verbally ripping your head off the next.

PJK: Rupert was always polite and, in the main, charming, even when you said no. You may pay a price later, but he was always polite.

-Paul Keating, Australian, 1944-

-Kerry O’Brien, Australian, 1945-

From Keating (2015) – 1

In a series of 2015 television interviews, veteran ABC journalist Kerry O’Brien probed former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating – who had always insisted he would never write an autobiography – on what made him and how he governed. Born in Darlinghurst in 1944 and growing up in Bankstown, he left school at 14 and joined the Australian Labor Party as soon as he was eligible. Here he recalls one of his earliest mentors, the tempestuous Jack Lang, who had been Premier of New South Wales before his 1932 dismissal by Governor Sir Phillip Game, and was later expelled from the mainstream Labor Party:

PJK: I used to see him twice a week for about seven years. Strangely he used to call me Mr Keating and I was only eighteen in those days. He was very formal. I used to address him as Mr Lang. Among other things, I asked him whether I should go and do a university degree, and he thought for a while before saying, ‘Mr Keating, you have too much to learn for a university degree, about the getting of power and the using of it. There are no courses in this’…

Paul Keating sponsors Jack Lang’s readmission into the Australian Labor Party, July 1971

He and I disagreed on a lot of policy fronts like protection and tariffs, and I’d say on much of the world debate I would probably have been on the other side to him. I didn’t want that from him. I wanted the dynamics, and how the game was played.

What I particularly picked up from Lang was his use of language, the force of his language. He had hugely long arms, as if they were concertinaed. They’d come out at you as he talked. He had the celluloid collar and the gold chain, and that big jaw, and he’d say, ‘Mr Keating, I’m telling you this’, and he’d lean across the table with a look that would bore a hole in you. He was then 87 or 88. There was no one like him then.

He used to say to me, ‘Always put your money on self-interest, son. He’s the best horse in the race; always a trier.’

KOB: I did an interview with you in 1986 where you described how you learned from Lang to be hard in your judgements. What did you mean by that?

PJK: Lang once said to me, ‘One of your problems, Mr Keating, is you take people at their word. This is a business where duplicity is the order of the day. Look for the best in people by all means, but keep a sceptical eye peeled for what they are saying to you and what they really mean. What you should look for is the support of the earnest people. There will be a lot whose support you will never have. But you will never be anyone until you have a reasonable stock of enemies.’ It’s the issues that sort people out. It’s just so true, because having enemies worries some people. For me, it’s a badge of honour. It’s never worried me that a group of people would not have a bar of me. And that’s the way Lang conducted his life.

Even so, I never really took that kind of almost morbid cynicism on board as an operating principle. I always found better in people in public life, and if you go through a caucus like I did for nearly 30 years, you’ve got to build coalitions and friendships with people. So there are people you trust. I never subscribed to the solitary school, that you’re on your own and only on your own, but I did subscribe to the fact that you’ve got to look at what is said to you and look behind it. You have to end up being a good judge of character and a good judge of what is really being said to you, as well as a good listener.

People may be members of a political party, but they get to Parliament in their own right. It’s like a team with a captain but the members of a team earn their place independently, so to stitch together majorities in Parliament continually, you’ve got to look at people to see what their interests are, what things they have in common, what natural point of agreement you have with them, or points of disagreement.

  -Paul Keating, Australian, 1944-

-Kerry O’Brien, Australian, 1945-

From The House (2018)

Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s design won the 1957 competition for the Sydney Opera House. In July, he set foot in Australia for the first time, accompanied by his business partner, Swedish architect Erik Andersson. When they first saw the Bennelong Point site they were accompanied by Gavin Souter, features writer for the Sydney Morning Herald:

Model of Opera House shell, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

Perched high above the site on the Tarpeian Way, the path above the sheer rock face cut along the north-west side of Macquarie Street in the Botanic Garden, they took in the splendid view of both the harbour and the promontory.

Utzon was blown away by the location and almost literally by the nor’-wester coming in off the harbour. ‘It’s right,’ said the Dane as his hair and gabardine coat blew wildly in the wind. Like a good sailor he scanned the horizon, from the Sydney Heads to the Circular Quay ferry terminal. He took in the vista of the harbour, the clouds, the Harbour Bridge – everything he could from this high vantage point. ‘It’s okay. This is the way they placed temples in the old days. It’s absolutely breathtaking. There’s no opera house site in the world to compare with it….This site is even more beautiful than in the photographs from which I worked.’

…Utzon explained he wanted a house that seemed to grow organically out of the landscape. To find such a shape, he had looked at flowers and insects.  He spoke about Mayan platforms and Kronborg Castle, which stood on a point only a few miles from his home.

‘It was not really the same. At Kronborg, part of the horizon is open; here the site is more intimate because the other side of the harbour is so close. Kronborg Castle is a big heavy structure with high towers and, as the ferry runs around it, the towers seem to move,’ he explained to Souter, as he watched a Manly ferry rounding the point on its way to Circular Quay. ‘The House will have several shells behind each other so that when you move past, they seem to move too…’


Model of Opera House interior, 1966 (City of Sydney Archives)

‘What do you think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s criticism?’ Souter asked.

‘He would not bother attacking it if he were not interested in it,’ Utzon replied, noting the praise from architects such as Richard Neutra, whom he’d visited in Los Angeles on his way to Sydney.

‘Don’t let me be a self-praiser,’ Utzon cautioned. ‘Self-praise stinks in Denmark.’ In Denmark, Jante’s law, a concept similar to Australia’s tall poppy syndrome, downplayed individual success.

To those who dismissed his design as ‘modern foolishness’, he said their criticism didn’t interest him, echoing his own father’s openness to the spirit of the new. ‘We ride in automobiles and we fire rockets. Why should we build in the Victorian style today?…’

‘This is how it will be at Bennelong Point. You must belong to your surroundings. When we design for Copenhagen, we are Danes; when we made this scheme for the Opera House, we camped on Bennelong Point. We were Bennelong Pointers.’

 -Helen Pitt, Australian

From The Mirror of the Sea (1906)

Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in a Polish-speaking part of the Russian Empire, Joseph Conrad went to sea in 1874, and drew on his experiences as a merchant seaman for his fiction. In his memoir The Mirror of the Sea, he looks back on the Sydney of the 1870s:

Watermen and their boats at Circular Quay, c.1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

These towns of the Antipodes, not so great then as they are now, took an interest in the shipping, the running links with “home,” whose numbers confirmed the sense of their growing importance.  They made it part and parcel of their daily interests.  This was especially the case in Sydney, where, from the heart of the fair city, down the vista of important streets, could be seen the wool-clippers lying at the Circular Quay—no walled prison-house of a dock that, but the integral part of one of the finest, most beautiful, vast, and safe bays the sun ever shone upon.  Now great steam-liners lie at these berths, always reserved for the sea aristocracy—grand and imposing enough ships, but here to-day and gone next week; whereas the general cargo, emigrant, and passenger clippers of my time, rigged with heavy spars, and built on fine lines, used to remain for months together waiting for their load of wool.  Their names attained the dignity of household words.  On Sundays and holidays the citizens trooped down, on visiting bent, and the lonely officer on duty solaced himself by playing the cicerone—especially to the citizenesses with engaging manners and a well-developed sense of the fun that may be got out of the inspection of a ship’s cabins and state-rooms.  The tinkle of more or less untuned cottage pianos floated out of open stern-ports till the gas-lamps began to twinkle in the streets, and the ship’s night-watchman, coming sleepily on duty after his unsatisfactory day slumbers, hauled down the flags and fastened a lighted lantern at the break of the gangway…

Circular Quay, c. 1888. View from the water looking south to Mort Co. (Woolbrokers) with banners “Many Happy Returns of the Day” (possibly on the occasion of the Centenary in January) and showing people gathered on the quay and a number of launches or ferries and tall ships. (Photo by Henry King 1880-1890, City of Sydney Archives)

A stupid job, and fit only for an old man, my comrades used to tell me, to be the night-watchman of a captive (though honoured) ship.  And generally the oldest of the able seamen in a ship’s crew does get it.  But sometimes neither the oldest nor any other fairly steady seaman is forthcoming.  Ships’ crews had the trick of melting away swiftly in those days.  So, probably on account of my youth, innocence, and pensive habits (which made me sometimes dilatory in my work about the rigging), I was suddenly nominated, in our chief mate Mr. B—’s most sardonic tones, to that enviable situation.  I do not regret the experience.  The night humours of the town descended from the street to the waterside in the still watches of the night: larrikins rushing down in bands to settle some quarrel by a stand-up fight, away from the police, in an indistinct ring half hidden by piles of cargo, with the sounds of blows, a groan now and then, the stamping of feet, and the cry of “Time!” rising suddenly above the sinister and excited murmurs; night-prowlers, pursued or pursuing, with a stifled shriek followed by a profound silence, or slinking stealthily alongside like ghosts, and addressing me from the quay below in mysterious tones with incomprehensible propositions. The cabmen, too, who twice a week, on the night when the A.S.N. Company’s passenger-boat was due to arrive, used to range a battalion of blazing lamps opposite the ship, were very amusing in their way.  They got down from their perches and told each other impolite stories in racy language, every word of which reached me distinctly over the bulwarks as I sat smoking on the main-hatch.  On one occasion I had an hour or so of a most intellectual conversation with a person whom I could not see distinctly, a gentleman from England, he said, with a cultivated voice, I on deck and he on the quay sitting on the case of a piano (landed out of our hold that very afternoon), and smoking a cigar which smelt very good.  We touched, in our discourse, upon science, politics, natural history, and operatic singers.  Then, after remarking abruptly, “You seem to be rather intelligent, my man,” he informed me pointedly that his name was Mr. Senior, and walked off—to his hotel, I suppose.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I think I saw a white whisker as he turned under the lamp-post.  It is a shock to think that in the natural course of nature he must be dead by now.  There was nothing to object to in his intelligence but a little dogmatism maybe.  And his name was Senior!  Mr. Senior!

Circular Quay , with ruins of Dawes Battery in the foreground with a small steamer berthed in (now) Campbells Cove. The spire and lookout of the AUSN building is at far right. Campbell’s bond stores below the AUSN tower. (City of Sydney Archives)

The position had its drawbacks, however. One wintry, blustering, dark night in July, as I stood sleepily out of the rain under the break of the poop something resembling an ostrich dashed up the gangway. I say ostrich because the creature, though it ran on two legs, appeared to help its progress by working a pair of short wings; it was a man, however, only his coat, ripped up the back and flapping in two halves above his shoulders, gave him that weird and fowl-like appearance. At least, I suppose it was his coat, for it was impossible to make him out distinctly. How he managed to come so straight upon me, at speed and without a stumble over a strange deck, I cannot imagine. He must have been able to see in the dark better than any cat. He overwhelmed me with panting entreaties to let him take shelter till morning in our forecastle. Following my strict orders, I refused his request, mildly at first, in a sterner tone as he insisted with growing impudence.

Circular Quay, c. 1890. (City of Sydney Archives)

“For God’s sake let me, matey!  Some of ’em are after me—and I’ve got hold of a ticker here.”

“You clear out of this!” I said.

“Don’t be hard on a chap, old man!” he whined pitifully.

“Now then, get ashore at once.  Do you hear?”

Silence.  He appeared to cringe, mute, as if words had failed him through grief; then—bang! came a concussion and a great flash of light in which he vanished, leaving me prone on my back with the most abominable black eye that anybody ever got in the faithful discharge of duty.  Shadows!  Shadows!  I hope he escaped the enemies he was fleeing from to live and flourish to this day.  But his fist was uncommonly hard and his aim miraculously true in the dark.

 -Joseph Conrad, Polish-British, 1857-1924

From They’re a Weird Mob (1957)

The pharmacist-turned-novelist John O’Grady adopted the pseudonym of Giovanni ‘Nino’ Culotta to write the story of an immigrant Italian journalist who comes to Sydney and writes about the people – and their version of English – he finds there. Nino’s true identity was only revealed two months after publication. It became a hit film in 1966:

Most Australians speak English like I speak Hindustani, which I don’t. In general, they use English words, but in a way that makes no sense to anyone else. And they don’t use our European vowel sounds, so that even if they do construct a normal sentence, it doesn’t sound like one. This made it necessary for me, until I became accustomed to it, to translate everything that was said to me twice, first into English and then into Italian. So my replies were always slow, and those long pauses prompted many belligerent remarks, such as ‘Well don’t just stand there like a dill; d’yer wanta beer or dontcha?’

Nino is a Piedmontese who has several altercations with the Meridionali (southerners who made up the bulk of Italian immigrants) on the voyage to Australia:

…I saw Sydney for the first time the very best way – from the deck of a ship. And at the very best time – early in the morning, with the sun behind us. It was October, and the sun was beautiful. The Customs people were not, but the rest of our Meridionali had to be got ashore, and no doubt that accounted for them being irritable. My promise to the captain was no longer binding, so I said a few words. Which led to a nice little battle, which was ended by some Australian policemen. A big one, with silver stripes on his arm pointed to me. ‘You,’ he said, ‘come here.’

I hit one more of the Meridionali, and walked over to him.

‘You called me, sir?’ I said.

‘Where are your bags?’

‘Over there, sir.’

‘Get ’em.’

Two other policemen joined him, so I thought I’d better humour him. I got my bags and came back.

‘Come on,’ he said.

I followed them out, and they went to a taxi, and the big policeman opened the boot and put my bags inside. One of the others opened the door of the taxi, and stood by.

‘Excuse me, sir.’ I said. ‘Where do we go?’

He said, ‘Get in.’

I got in, and the one by the door shut it, and the big one said to the driver, ‘Get going.’ The driver started up and went up the street a little way, and then said, ‘Where to, mate?’

I said, in a very dignified manner, ‘It appears to me, sir, that since you are acting under the orders of the constabulary, you are undoubtedly well aware of our destination.’

He said, ‘Cut the bull. An’ don’ call me sir. Where yer wanner go?’

Some of this I understood, and it was surprising. ‘Do you not know?’ I said.

‘No,’ he said.




After a while, he said, ‘Well we can’t sit ‘ere all bloody day; where we goin’?’

I was silently translating what he said into what I thought he meant in an English I understood, and translating this into Italian, and working out my answer in Italian, to be translated into English, all of which was taking some time, when he suddenly seemed to become very irritable and said, ‘Gawd I’ve been drivin’ his bloody thing since one o’bloody clock this mornin’ an’ now it’s bloody near time for lunch an’ I ‘ave ter get landed with a bloody ning nong who doesn’t know where he’s bloody goin’. Will the Cross do yer?’

By the time I had worked out a few words of this speech, we had arrived somewhere, and he was getting my bags out of the boot. I got out also, and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’

‘Kings Cross. Three bob.’

‘Excuse me, sir, but do you mind telling me where I now am?’

He shouted very loudly, ‘KINGS BLOODY CROSS!’

I said this to myself two or three times, and decided that it must be the name of a suburb. So I said, ‘Why?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why am I in Kings Bloody Cross?’

‘Because I bloody brought yer…three bob.’

‘I do not understand what you say, and I do not understand why I am where I am, but I thank you. Could you please inform me, please, where is some place where I may be able to obtain some food?’

‘Anywhere around here,’ he said. ‘Are yer gunna pay me the three bob or ain’t yer?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Look mate, I brought yer from the bloody dock, an’ you owe me three bob. Do I get ut or don’t I?’

I caught the word ‘Owe’ and said, ‘I am reminded of something. You have transported me to this place, and I would like you to inform me how much is my fare, please?’

He became very irate again, and said in a loud voice, ‘Strike me bloody ’andsome, I just told yer. Three bob.’

‘How much is the fare please?’

He said ‘Oh-h-h!’ and something I didn’t understand, then pushed his cap back, and scratched his head. Then he said, very slowly and distinctly, ‘Look mate, have-you-any-money?’

This was very good English, and I answered immediately, ‘Yes.’


Again I was able to answer immediately, and I was wishing he would always speak as clearly as this. I said, ‘Of course, I have three shillings.’

Then he seemed to acquire a great rage, and said, ‘Well bloody give ut to me before I call the bloody cops or do me block or some such bloody thing. Give us me three bob.’

He was holding out his hand, so I assumed he wanted three shillings. I gave him three shillings. He said, ‘Any man takes this game on’s not right in the nut.’ He got into his taxi and drove away without even saying thank you.

-‘Nino Culotta’ (John O’Grady), Australian, 1907-1981