Battlers, Ferries and SydneyWorld

July 8th, 2005

Up at six-thirty, a rare foggy Saturday morning, toe-curlingly cold the first hour. Time to put the kettle on for a cup of milky brick-coloured tea and potter about with the oven on high to warm the kitchen. Had another long wakeful stretch before dawn, so I’m heaving my usual Sisyphean grumble up the lower slopes of the day. My mood is like hot air pouring out of an open oven door, rising into the high-ceiling chill as one warms bitterly to one’s subject. It’ll roll back down and dissipate during the cool reflective evening. This morning’s portion of text: good old raw Aussie gold, transmuted into the base metal and refined polymers of the New World Order, just like everywhere else (Book of Negativity, Chapter 6, verse 13).

Sydney at its most obvious is like a party person who exclaims “Wow”, or “Exactly”, or “Fabulous, isn’t it FABULOUS!” The city’s boom-era grab-and-go cheeriness is enough to wear you out. It is one reason why the right sorts of Melbourne people claim to despise the same class of Sydney people. In Melbourne the salonistes prefer to resonate discreetly. If Melbournian pretension could be likened to very old balsamic vinegar, the luxuriant smugness of Sydneysiders is like virgin olive oil the colour of money.

“Think of the possibilities!”

The aspect of Sydney that flashes its front at you is like this: a not-so-young couple at a party, carefully dressed in dark, retro-metro angst-chic, sharp, knowing, but tanned and super positive, talking fast—about her hip-hop semiotics thesis, his stressful job and expensive habit, their artist friend who’s a Torres Strait Islander…. But they’ve got nothing to say. The bright, cotton-tufted Sydney sky seems this way too.

I ought to put a sock in it, sitting here at seven o’clock in the morning like Eyore, dropping the damp rubber remnant of a blue balloon into my empty honey jar, looking at it, and fishing it out again before looking at it some more. I should get out and enjoy the crisp air and creamy winter sun, go on a ferry trip maybe.

The usual photogenic Sydney ferry trip crosses Port Jackson to Taronga Zoo, or through the churning rip between the inner heads to Manly, “seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care.” You cross the busy Corso, get some fish and chips and a beer and sit on the beach. Today I’ll do the commuter trip from Circular Quay up the Parramatta River as far as my Red Zone weekly transport pass will allow, to Kissing Point. I’ll have a look round out there and wait for the return ferry.

A half hour walk takes me down the crowded Glebe hillside past the greyhound track and the fish markets, across Pyrmont to Darling Harbour, which has been revamped as an Expo-Sydney style tourist hub. After crossing the old drawbridge, another half hour’s walk down the city’s George Street canyon will get me to Circular Quay.

I remember crossing the battered Pyrmont Bridge from the city to the Inner West twenty-five years ago, when Darling Harbour was stray dog’s crotch of abandoned wharves and sooty warehouses with broken windows. Pyrmont and Ultimo were still grimy and cheap, the last redoubt of the inner city Little Aussie Battler.

“Battler” is an iconic, almost scriptural title. It started out as a put-down. A woman who loitered on the street corners of Kings Cross so she could earn a few extra quid for her old man was a battler. So was a bloke who hung around the racetrack, without the cash to make a bet or the inclination to find any. Later on the Aussie Battler was remembered as the little bloke who struggled in a low paying job, with few prospects and fewer complaints. Little Aussie Battlers could never quite fight their way out of the psychological chasm between the bugger-you-mate swaggering colonial larrikin and the primly resentful ledger clerk of Aussie bureaucracy.

The River Cat backs out of the Quay, turns to face the choppy harbour and zips past the Opera House, a glowing three dimensional puzzle of lunes, segments of a sphere balanced together like sails (the travel brochure simile), or like several pairs of hands, a family of fingertips together in prayer, or a sun bleached nautilus shell peered at through a kaleidoscope.

As soon as you’re out on the water life becomes a holiday and the wind gets wintry. The ferry-catamaran is full of weekend trippers. We “ooh” and “aah” under the grey steel harbour bridge, past the waterfront warehouse lofts, back around to Darling Harbour, the next inlet on the journey inland.

Where are we really? Is this the Embarcadero San Francisco? Is it South Street Seaport New York? The same international mall in plate glass and steel girders, palms and potted Ficus trees, with minor local variation: home baked cookie outlets, wallaby skins, opals, tea-towels, didgeridoos made in China, billboards and menus of gangly, quirky, laconic Crocodile-Dundeediness laser-written, laminated and slapped down on the plastic tables with the roo burger and fair-dinkum-fries specials.

Entertainment halls, airport terminal style, crowd Cockle Bay, the back end of the little harbour. From here they look like molars in a wide mouth stuffed with sweets. A Monorail loops the complex and touches the western edge of the city. (“I reckon we orta have a Monorail.” “Yair, a Monorail.” “Hasn’t Tokyo got one?” Seattle’s got one.” “We orta get one.”) A vision realised so modestly is useless as transport except for tourists to pay and be led by the nose on.

The ferry pulls in at King St wharf, next to the “Sydney Showboat”, made up of sheet metal and Perspex windows, with a fake paddle that trails at the back. Bloody Sydney World.

The Aussie Battler kept his nose to the grindstone, occasionally waving his little ragged flag, sticking it in the face of Officialdom and its rectilious punctitude. The wives, when they’d finally had a gutful of it all, could summon up a red-faced rage against the machine (usually in the form of their hapless, mumbling husbands) before settling for a cup of tea, a Bex and a bit of a lie down. The men retreated to their sanctuary, the beer garden on Friday and Saturday nights, where they’d talk about the oats they could’ve sowed, but didn’t quite have the courage to, all the while cultivating their beer bellies together like market gardeners nursing prize watermelons.

Other snapshots of battlerdom:

A little girl sits humming “hi ho the mary-oh,” kicking her sandals against the planks of the old wooden dunny box in the outhouse at the back (our dunny had a shingle with “Pooh Corner” scratched on it).

A freckled boy has his picture taken, head hanging bashfully to the side, mouth open in a pained grin and eyes screwed up against the glare of the sun. Seems like everyone had this expression on their face in the old days when they had their picture taken outdoors, peering quizzically into the heat. I’ve even seen a picture in an old Woman’s Weekly magazine of some grey Prime Minister escorting Elizabeth II in rubber boots on one of her royal rambles, across a paddock full of sheep shit. Both Minister and Queen squint toothily into the morning glare.

Our Battler was also the backbone of the Labour movement during the early to mid 20th century, when Australia and New Zealand led the world in women’s and workers’ rights. The White Army, Australia’s pre-war fascist sympathisers, threw their net out and fished up some battlers too, but they appealed to a more nervous stratum, those battlers who had made it across the chasm and finally had a bit of something they feared they could lose. Militant Right-ism fizzled out quickly though. Aussies are gung ho fighters and can be as lazily intolerant as anyone else, but we’ve always hated being told directly which way we ought to march.

The ferry half-disgorges before gobbling up a group elderly Japanese tourists in identical plastic rain jackets and sunbonnets. The Japanese tourists point their tiny silver video cameras this way and that. The railings are crowded. I move back for a small smiling couple. The old man extends a little bow, and I acknowledge his thanks with a High-Melbournian inclination of my upper torso.

We well-exercised, educated new-centra-lefties living in the former Little Aussie Battler districts of Glebe, Pyrmont, Balmain et al., have to deal adroitly with the thought that the contemporary Battler (whose grandfathers we claim as our spiritual grandfathers too) is now more likely to be a Liberal voter, which in Australia means nationalist-conservative, and is as likely to be South East Asian or Middle Eastern, living in Cabramatta, Blacktown or Emu Plains, out in those Western Suburbs where no one from the Inner City ever goes, and where the frothy head on the Aussie dream is to live like a Burgher King in a McMansion and own a home theatre system and a speedboat. Sound familiar, international brothers and sisters?

Inner Eyore is at it again. At least we occasional grumblers can’t do too much damage to the world, not like those dangerous utopian types who get doctoral degrees in Life so they can Think Things Through before telling us grumblers what to do. Ahh, shuddup and let Inner Piglet have a squeak. We’re on a ferry trip.

Darling Harbour is not all cheap. The Chinese Garden of Friendship, a wooing gift from the Peoples Republic of Doing Business, is tucked away next to the Convention Centre. It’s a set of pavilions with roofs that curve like the line of a ballet dancer’s beckoning arms. Behind its austere walls weeping willows and watercourses dapple prettily in the sun. It’s an enchanting place in which to curl up read on a day of soft, cobwebby rain.

Away from the shops the jetties are full of ships, retired naval vessels and square-sailed replicas that don’t look fake. There’s the Bounty, of Captain Bligh and Fletcher Christian fame. Its hull is a fat cucumber of varnished, rivet-pocked timbers with three masts like crossbow bolts held down by pyramidal webs of taut and twisted rope. The next jetty has the restored colonial barque the James Craig, and up by the maritime Museum is the Batavia, the tallest masts and widest spars of all, a tubby and piratically rakish hull with a jutting prow and high quarterdecks rearing up like a saddle on a horse’s bum, caprizoned in gold and blue. The original was wrecked off the West Australian coast in 1629, with an aftermath of mutiny, starvation and massacre. Inner Piglet squeals with glee at such tales of ships and history.

The River Cat speeds out to the middle of the harbour and turns west toward the suburbs. But if you got this far, dear reader, and still want to chug up the river with me to Kissing Point and back you’ll have to wait for another instalment, as I’ve nearly run out of my allotted gallon of wind.

We pass the container port on the long side of the Darling Harbour dogleg, under the towers of the Central Business District. There’s just one cargo super ship today, clean and graceless. It looks like a big white freezer welded onto an orange speedboat hull. What’s missing here is a rusty old tramp steamer from the grimy glory days of shipping, the sort my dad was first mate on after the war. If I ever bought a Powerball ticket and won I’d scour West African and Indian ship graveyards until I found one and got it towed back here, battered and reeking of salt and soot. But a development committee would vote to have her cleaned up and turned into another casino wouldn’t they?

This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at


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