About a fortnight before Christmas the Eastern Suburbs empty. The streets near my children’s school seem to have transformed into a sleepy Colombian village in a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel. There are no tradies, no dog walkers, no headphone-wearing workers; the children have been magicked away down the coast or to the northern hemisphere. The large brown cat stretched across the top step of the corner shop doesn’t even bother to open an eyelid as we pass.
Summer in the eastern suburbs is the soybean-flour texture of rotting Moreton Bay figs underfoot. It’s long dusks in parks, the prolonged umami odours of the harbour at low tide, plate-sized blooms in the magnolia grandiflora, and groups fishing at the water's edge into the night, talking in soft Russian and Arabic. Viewed from the cliff-edge of Kings Cross in the afternoons, the air over the city is grainy and thick with moisture, brooding on rain or storm. It may— if we’re lucky—clear suddenly, a southerly buster arriving with a crash, to knock over vases and slam doors.
We’ll be swimming until Easter, as the water turns warmer, and tiny purple jellyfish flock into the inner harbour.
Beach days start before the school term ends, when I jump into the car with my neighbour, or my children’s godmother, and we swim back and forth along the net at Nielsen Park. It’s best at high tide, just before rain, when the sea is the flat jade green of a Venetian canal in a Carpaccio mural and you can see every pale sand ripple on the sea floor. With the kids, the best time is late Friday afternoon, as the sun throws its last horizontal orange light across the water and we line up afterwards for fish and chips at the tiny wooden kiosk—for once, the only queue in town. The bush sweats its eucalyptus-and-tea smell. Families that have set up their tents and camp chairs at dawn talk on into the dusk as kookaburras drop silently from the figs onto the cool grass below.
Red Dog on a Tuckerbox, modelled by Reggie.Credit:Janie Barrett
We’ll be swimming until Easter, as the water turns warmer, and tiny purple jellyfish flock into the inner harbour, their stings like minute electric currents. Over the years, my swimming friends and I have talked over our books in progress, and politics, and people, as the sea plane flies low overhead, but lately we find our conversations turn to global warming and where the water will rise.
Some years our family also travels down the coast, but mostly we stay put. Often we find ourselves driving, because we can, in a lazy instant, to the beach, or a breezy park, or to Christmas shop. We feel a little sad around Australia Day, when it starts to feel busy again.
What does it say about my character, that my favourite time is these few weeks when the east is least full of humanity? I’m a terrible person, I confess to a friend. God, no, she says. It was this time of the year when she first moved here from Melbourne and fell in love with the city as she drove from Redfern to Bondi in eight minutes. “No traffic, not a single red light—it was like a magic carpet ride”, she says, “and I realised what I was feeling was pure joy”.
Delia Falconer is the author of two novels (The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers) and, most recently, Sydney, a personal history of her hometown.
Beach days start before the school term ends.Credit:Louie Douvis
The Inner West – James Bradley
My partner and I moved from Bondi to the inner west in November just over nine years ago. It was brutally hot – one of those late spring days when the summer heat settles glassily on the city streets and gives the lie to the calendar’s neat mapping of the seasons onto the months – and by the time we packed it in for the night I was exhausted.
Because it was hot we left the balcony doors open when we went to bed, hopeful the small hour might bring cooler air. But somewhere after midnight I was awoken by somebody shouting outside. Standing up I went out onto the balcony. Two doors down from our new house a streetlight. Seated on the bench was an old woman, bottle in hand, declaiming at length about some incomprehensible betrayal and the corruption of the police.
Knowing I wouldn’t sleep again, I stayed, watching her, and looking out at the street. Ever since I was a teenager I have loved summer nights, their sensuous warmth and wakefulness, the glimpses of the secret worlds of houses and gardens as they spill onto the street. Nowhere is this more true than in the suburbs in Sydney’s centre, where the terraces and apartments crowd the narrow streets, and the sudden declivities of the landscape blur the boundary between public and private.
Ever since I was a teenager I have loved summer nights, their sensuous warmth and wakefulness.
In many ways our new street was much like many we had lived on before. Yet as I stared out at it, I was struck less by the similarities than the differences. Across the road an imposing nineteenth century building stood empty, its peeling paintwork and ornate filigree obscured behind a rusting metal fence and a wildly overgrown garden. Owned by Cityrail it had been allowed to decline to a state of near collapse. A little further down the road an old factory was in the process of being converted into apartments. Somewhere nearby ibises could be heard, honking sleepily in the warm dark; closer to hand crickets and froglets and pobblebonks creaked and called, their cries occasionally interrupted by the yips and shrieks of the bats foraging in the lillypillies.
As I came to know the area over the next few months I realised how essential these two elements are to an appreciation of the inner west, especially in the summer. On the one hand there is the variety and particularity of its urban landscape, the patchwork of terraces, semis and Californian bungalows broken up by railway yards and old commercial and industrial property, a mixture that is visibly in flux, as successive waves of migration and gentrification and redevelopment overlap and coexist. It is this mixture that so many who live here to create places so distinctly their own, whether the orchards and gardens of older migrants or the street-art decorated.
King Street, Newtown.Credit:Christopher Pearce
But on the other there is also the constant presence of the natural world, both as a landscape and as a natural presence. Away from Five Dock and Balmain the inner west’s landscape may lack the photogenic beauty of the harbour and the beaches. Nonetheless the contours of another, older landscape are still visible, whether in the Triassic sandstone of the cliffs that line Wolli Creek and the Cooks River, the canals and drains that criss-cross Tempe and Earlwood, marking out the wetlands that once filled the area, or the birds and animals that inhabit the pockets of bushland and abandoned land.
In summer it is these that bring the inner west alive, as the scent of the gardens fill the streets, and the crowded geography brings lives and worlds into contact with one another.
James Bradley is an author and critic. His books include the novels Wrack, The Deep Field, The Resurrectionist and Clade, The Change Trilogy for young adults and The Penguin Book of the Ocean.
The Illawarra – Catherine McKinnon
It's early morning, still dark. A lone bird calls. A rooster crows. In the nearby paddock, cows bawl and kookaburras let rip with cackling laughing hoots. I roll over in bed. Light sneaks through the trees turning pink the grey trunk of a towering red gum. High up, tiny psyllid nymphs suck eucalypt leaves. To protect themselves the nymphs have secreted a white sugary covering called a lerp. As the day begins, screeching rainbow lorikeets create a racket flocking to the tree and plucking lerp from the leaves.
Later, G and I sit at the table, sipping black coffee. We watch a pair of catbirds dart down and pick at an apple left on the verandah. A young catbird lands. It squawks and squeaks, unsteadily following its parents. We keep still, so the catbirds won't fly away, but scarlet-headed king parrots glide down and perch on the gutters. The catbirds scatter. One parrot hangs off the window-sill and peers in, twisting its head from side to side. Behind it, two brown cuckoo-doves, resting on an overhanging branch, begin to call, coo-crrork, coo-crrork. A friend of mine has told me about the magpie who visits her. 'It's like the bird is my mother's spirit,' she said. (Both our parents have died.) I don't believe in such things, and yet, the brown cuckoo-doves remind me of my parents. Mythic beliefs run deep.
Night comes. Steamy. We lie awake. Outside, moonlight glimmers through dark leaves.
G heads to the studio, me to the office. I spot two wonga pigeons strolling through the trees, their call a continuous woo, woo, woo, woo. A grey shrike-thrush singing pip-pip-pip-pip-ho-ee flutters up to the window to pluck off a spider. As I start to write, sinking into another time, another place, a bower bird dives down and snatches a blue peg from the outside table.
The day grows warmer, no breeze stirs. Dogs bark, tractors groan, water-pumps hum. Blowflies and mosquitos buzz. Small birds perch on the side of the water tub, waiting their turn to splash. At midday, it's almost quiet. Faint chirps. A breeze scoots through leaves. Then, a thump! I know that sound. A bird has flown into a window. I race outside. A cuckoo-dove lies on the concrete, gasping. I call out as I kneel beside her. G comes running. But the bird stops breathing. Her red feet and claws go still as blood trickles from her brown head.
"In this bird suburb is our house a Trojan horse?"Credit:Jay Cronan
Night comes. Steamy. We lie awake. Outside, moonlight glimmers through dark leaves. Possums screech. An owl calls boobook. We hear whining cats. It's the catbirds. We get up and go outside. The back light is on. A willy wagtail is flying about. I've heard wagtails sing to the moon. A sweet trilling that fills the world with wonder. Does this wagtail think the light is the moon? I turn the light off. The wagtail flies off.
In this bird suburb is our house a Trojan horse?
The yowling catbirds are weirdly magical. We sit listening to the night life.
Exhilarating, but how long will it last?
Catherine’s McKinnon’s novel Storyland is published by HarperCollins. It was shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award.
The South-West – Luke Carman
Last November I started smoking again, perhaps because my father had a heart attack that month and I wanted to be sure we’d someday have even that tragic flaw in common. But to smoke meant I had at least to leave the house a little during the day, so I rediscovered the backyard in summer.
For a long time I hadn’t paid it any mind, except as the large fenced-off area where the hill’s hoist was located. I’d sit at the old outdoor table setting, which had lost some arms and legs and was held up by its own inertia, and I’d stub butts into a metal bucket of sand by my feet. It was hot, and the grass was nothing but rust-brown patches across dry, bare dirt. On the other side of the fence, our neighbours’ yards were as green as sea weed. I went to Bunnings, and returned with a sprinkler and smoked while it saturated the yard, and magpies came and played in the streams of water, puffing up their feathers and flapping at each other for hours.
It was hot, and the grass was nothing but rust-brown patches across dry, bare dirt.
The grass turned from brown to green, and slowly spread across the dirt and up toward the house. Cats started to appear in the yard, digging under the fence and climbing into the branches of the trees which grew wild and were full of pigeons and mynas. I went back to Bunnings and bought a saw, and cut back the branches hanging over the fence, bought a shredder too, and mulched and stacked the cuttings and dumped them onto a heap by the side gate.
Things looked good for a while and I remembered being a kid in the same yard with a friend from school, laying on deck chairs near where the old above-ground pool had been, watching the filter bubble and bob its lid in the water as bees and dragonflies landed on the crystal blue surface. We’d smoke pot and look up at the palm tree and my friend would say ‘your place is like a tropical resort, eh? If you just look at it like this.’ He was squinting.
Luke Carman rediscovered his backyard in summer.Credit:Robert Rough
One afternoon my friend blew smoke into my dog’s nose. ‘Hey stop that!’ I told him, ‘you might do that kind of thing in Mount Pritchard east, but on the west side that’s strictly forbidden!’ He said sorry, and for a while my poor dog seemed fine, but then it began to pleasure itself, and would not cease. It’s bony front legs were spinning around in circles as it lapped between its hind legs. ‘Good god she’s tripping!’ I said, ‘you’ve driven her mad!’ My friend began to panic, apologising profusely.
The poor dog, in life my firmest friend, she died many years later, in the same yard where I sat and smoked last November. The vet injected a shot into one of her bony front legs, and we patted her, the whole family, until she went to sleep right here on the brick work.
It was nice, to be out again with the birds and the trees for the summer, but smoking is bad so I bought some patches and this year I’m staying inside.
Luke Carman is the author of An Elegant Young Man, which was awarded a NSW Premier's Literary Award for New Writing. His new essay collection, Intimate Antipathies, will be published by Giramondo in 2019.
The Northern Rivers – Candida Baker
Out on the patio we'd sit,
And the humidity we'd breathe,
We'd watch the lightning crack over canefields
Laugh and think, this is Australia.
From Sounds of Then, GANGgajang
If I had to describe this area in summer in one word I think it would be 'fecund'. Buried in the ancient hills that fold their way down from Lismore to the beaches, is treasure of a delicious kind. On every honesty stall you’ll find a vast array of fruit and veggies, as well as coffee and local tea, and always, of course macadamias, those manicured plantations making a patchwork quilt of dense green.
But it's not just the flora that’s abundant. Although the whales have gone, the endless festivals pause for a breath, and the rodeos and agricultural shows are done and dusted for the year, summer also means snakes, cane-toads, Christmas beetles, green tree frogs and cicadas (and tourists).
Not for nothing is the Byron municipality known as The Shire, and the entire area as the Rainbow Region – there’s a Tolkien character on every corner.
Summer is also marked by the onslaught of humidity, filling the air with its heavy indolence and making even the slightest physical task daunting. Only mad dogs and tourists go out in the midday sun, and Spanish-style siestas become essential if you want to fit in any kind of work.
Colour fills my soul up here. Imagine a Rothko painting, a striated waterfall starting with the colour of the sea, to the golden beaches, the pale green of the cane-fields, on up into the macadamia plantations, darker still into the rainforests and the true hinterland, then paler again as it reaches Lismore, fading into the softer colours of the bush – and always with the glorious, wide-open sky stretched above in any stripe from the brightest blue to the deepest Payne’s Grey. Rise high on a road facing north, and you will see Wollumbin (Mt. Warning) the massive and crooked sentinel for this strange and magical land, with all its different folk cradled in the old volcano’s basin.
Not for nothing is the Byron municipality known as The Shire, and the entire area as the Rainbow Region – there’s a Tolkien character on every corner, including the man who brings his llamas to town once a year and ‘The Cowboy’ with his endless hitchhiking around Mullumbimby (the ‘Bimby of Mullum’ as a friend calls it), and his collection of lime, orange and aqua nylon suits worn even on the hottest day.
The Pass, a beach at Byron Bay.Credit:Andrew Quilty.
Follow my painting and every stripe is matched by its inhabitants – the confident and tanned coastal dwellers, the surfers and wave-lovers giving way to hippies and farmers and tree-changers and rainforest elves, with a smattering, inevitably, of the Old Guard still resisting the new-fangled ways.
For the Byron tribe of the Bundjalung Nation, the Arakwal people, Byron Bay was a meeting place where the northern and southern tribes met and during the summer, that is exactly what Byron is these days for travellers from all over the world. Byron itself has a slightly uneasy relationship with the rest of the area’s towns and villages – it’s the Sydney to their Hobart. Or perhaps it would be truer to say that everywhere else has an uneasy relationship to Byron, since Byron itself doesn’t give a toss. (A bit like Sydney, really.) Summer means literally hundreds of thousands of visitors to this seaside town that normally has no more than 6,000 permanent residents. Some embrace the fire-twirling, drumming, dread-locked, café culture, do-the-lighthouse-walk-at-a-run, decaf latte with almond milk, catch the best wave or die mania of it all.
Some others of us stay well away, choosing Broken Head, Lennox or Ballina for our summer beach experience, or hiding in the dark-green hills until the first hint of autumn is in the air.
Candida Baker's latest book, The Secret Life of Animals, will be published in 2019; she is currently completing an historical fiction work, Light and Shade, based on the life of photographer Eadweard Muybridge.
The Northern Beaches – Malcolm Knox
On 26 January 1936, Miles Franklin took her mother on a drive from their home in the St George area to the northern beaches. The author was depressed and bitter: her career was going far from brilliantly, and she had had to return home after 25 years in America and England to be full-time carer for her infirm mother and brother.
When you come home to the beaches, you return to a geography that unlocks delight.
Once she crossed the Spit Bridge, her cloud lifted. This coast, she wrote in her diary, was ‘immeasurably superior’ to the Californian beaches ‘over which the Americans enthuse’. ‘It is the serrated coastline that is so dignified with its draping of rare shrubs and trees. The bold headlands fill the imagination as though a royal line of gigantic prehistoric prows had drawn up there and become rock at the beginning of time.’ These headlands ‘burst upon the gaze [as] a key of loveliness which unlocks delight in me’.
I sometimes think of Franklin when I’m on a commuter bus from the city, releasing northern beaches residents back into the wild after a workday held hostage in their offices. When you come home to the beaches, you return to a geography that unlocks delight. I lived here when I was a young adult, left for a long time, and ten years ago rediscovered it on a day trip with my young family. We went to Manly and walked to Fairy Bower and looked at each other and said, ‘Why the hell are we not living here?’ It is a view echoed by the beaches’ mixed population of rusted-on and newly arrived: if you have to live in Sydney, why would you live anywhere else?
The beach offers freedom and an open blue prospect.Credit:Brook Mitchell
Of course, the northern beaches, like anywhere, are in constant flux. The fashion for ‘northern beaches noir’ – reinvestigations of the Lynette Dawson and Trudie Adams disappearances, the Keli Lane and Andrew Kalajzich homicides – tries to grasp this darkness-in-sunshine, but also elides the more variegated picture that people live among. Glass and steel suburbs sit next to fibro; multicultural islands sit in an ocean of white; the languages most heard on Manly Beach are Portuguese and Chinese; the insular peninsula’s two electorates, which spent decades returning Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop to Canberra, also registered Australia’s highest votes in support of same-sex marriage.
With so much spinning apart, what holds the beaches together? The same as in Miles Franklin’s time: the beauty of nature, the always changing but never changing Pacific. The beach is a contradiction, offering freedom, an unimpeded view to the horizon, while also on the brink of becoming as crammed and claustrophobic as a border wall. In the end, though, freedom wins, the open blue prospect, and it is so damn beautiful, what Franklin called the ‘green blue of the distance…that gives me ecstasy in beholding.’
Malcolm Knox's novels Summerland and Jamaica were set, in part, on the northern beaches. His most recent book is The Wonder Lover.
The Blue Mountains – Steven Herrick
Twenty-five years ago, I was offered a two-week residency at Varuna, the Writers' House in Katoomba. I travelled there by train from my rental accommodation in Newtown. I considered myself a poet and if I couldn’t be inspired to write while staying in the former home of the celebrated author, Eleanor Dark, then what hope was there. I arrived late on a Monday evening in January. The mountain mist was so thick I half-expected to see Heathcliff and Catherine on horseback riding through the gloom.
A kindly man wearing corduroy trousers and a jacket showed me to my room – Eleanor’s study. I spent that evening standing at the window gazing into a garden of dripping pine trees and listening to the sound of a neighbour chopping firewood. I slept under a doona and woke in the morning to an alarm of screeching black cockatoos and gang-gangs.
Who needs sunshine when you have family, love and literature.
The book I finished writing at Varuna was tempered with wind and mist and rain and a father who couldn’t talk to his son. In that fortnight there was only three days when the temperature rose above twenty-five degrees, at the peak of summer. Most afternoons I walked around the suburb admiring the old timber houses, each with a working chimney. A chimney!
I stopped outside a real estate office in Katoomba Street. There was a one-bedroom house available for $90000. It advertised a garret as a second ‘bedroom’. Poetry, mist and now a garret – my misguided image as a writer was confirmed.
A little later, my partner and our infant children moved in. The first thing we did was stand our two sons against the lounge-room wall and mark their height with a pencil. Every year we’d add new markings. It’s why we will never sell our house.
The first piece of furniture we bought was a slow combustion fireplace. I walked to the hardware for an axe. A man with a bushranger beard and Parramatta footy socks rolled down over Blundstone boots delivered Ironbark by the truckload and I wished for snow. Perhaps I was being too romantic?
"The world will shrink as the damp creeps under the floorboards and swirls through the branches of the eucalypts and pines."Credit:Gabriele Charotte
But every summer, without fail, while the rest of the country is comatose at the beach, there’ll be a week when I’m out in the garden chopping wood. From our elevated position, I’ll watch the mist gather in The Gully – once a summer camp for the Darug and Gundungurra peoples, then a car racing circuit, now abandoned.
Above me vapour trails drift across a luminous blue sky. But not for long. In a minute the sigh from The Gully will envelop our house and garden in a silent mist. The world will shrink as the damp creeps under the floorboards and swirls through the branches of the eucalypts and pines. The temperature will drop ten degrees and I’ll carry the kindling into our house, load the fireplace and retreat to my desk cluttered with books.
Who needs sunshine when you have family, love and literature.
Steven Herrick has written 24 books. His latest, The Bogan Mondrian, is set in Katoomba.
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