He came to this country from Europe, in an era that was – in many ways – of greater acceptance than the age we live in today. Barely able to speak the “native” tongue, and still scarred by the horrors of war, he attempted, to the best of his ability, to integrate into the society he found here.
Seriously, imagine the effort: the journey to get to this faraway place is in itself a hellish struggle. And then to arrive, to have to gather your bearings, to learn the language, to assess the social order where almost nobody is like you, and to gauge your place in it.
You don’t know anyone. You have nothing. Nobody is like you, and nobody cares about you.
And after all that, to actually make the effort to insert yourself into that world. To provide for it! With today’s luxuries and privileges, and the world having become a global village, it’s almost impossible to understand that experience.
But he knows.
We’re not talking about an intolerant culture, as we have today. Australia in the post-war era was arrogant, dominant. White Australia, victors of the war in the Pacific, liberator of ‘subordinate’ races found in the occupied island nations.
Today, racial and religious intolerance comes from a place of fear, fear for “our way of life”, fear of the unknown, and a deep-seated, shameful understanding that these ideals are too flimsy to be defended.
But back then, it was an arrogant patronising of these European cultures who had already been brutalised by intolerance beyond understanding. We’ll tolerate your spaghetti and fried rice, fellas.
A people person, he started his career as a hairdresser in the city. Armed with youth, energy, passion, a thirst for knowledge and a hunger for success, he began to network as he plied his trade. The ageing, well-to-do doyennes of Sydney’s east, left alone by their business-minded husbands all day, longed for an outlet for their thoughts, their stories, their plans and their dreams. They found it in him.
And who could blame them? A good-looking, upwardly mobile young man eager to listen while he cuts your hair (all the while learning the intricacies of his new language) would be the perfect ear.
“They were my ladies,” he’d tell me decades later. When I pressed for more, his brow darkened like storm clouds and he shook his head. “Sorry mate, they’re still mine.”
As now, networking paid off. Trust leads to loyalty, and when the young man was ready to move beyond the confines of the department store salon and get his own place, his ladies came with him.
Even though it was out in the wasteland of the south-west, in a tiny suburb few had heard of.
In the mid 1960s, Belfield was still relatively young. We’ve been there before, so there’s no need to go too deeply into the backstory. Catch up first, and then cast our man into the backdrop.
Although it’s the inner-west now, it was truly the outskirts of civilisation for many at the time. Many poor European migrants found themselves in the middle of growing suburbs like Belfield, and often during the worst growing pains. But land was cheap, space was plentiful, and tolerance could be found if you looked past the stares.
He told me the shop had been a deli before he bought it. He’d saved all his income from the city salon, lived hard for years but never let go of the dream to own his own business. The master of his own destiny. We’re content these days to end up wherever life tosses us. Control is too much effort, and believing in fate and destiny means it’s easier to explain away fortune both good and bad. His was a fighter’s generation, and he fought for everything he had. He’d been fighting from the day the Nazis shot his father dead.
His salon fit right into a suburb that had multiculturalised right under the white noses of the residents. An Italian laundry here, a Chinese restaurant (that serves Australian cuisine as well, natch) there, and a Greek hair salon right in the middle.
A friendly, ebullient character, everybody came to know him. The women loved him, the young men respected him, and the old ones still gave him sideways glances. He didn’t care – he’d outlive them.
“I still had my ladies,” he’d recall fifty years later. Some of his city customers had crossed the ditch, but he’d found an all-new community waiting to unload on him. He’d become family as he’d get to know the women, their children, and their children.
I came to this little shop for 25 years to get my hair cut. Always the same style: the Jon Arbuckle. In that time, I went from sitting in the baby chair and chucking a tantrum whenever it was time for a trim, to coming on my own, mainly for the conversation. As the years went on, he revealed more about himself and his life. It fascinated me.
“The hardest part,” he told me the last time I saw him “was that as the years passed, my ladies would…”
He paused. It was difficult.
“They’d stop coming in.”
Very true. Belfield is a very different suburb to what it was even ten years ago, let alone 30. Let alone 50. My grandmother was one of his women, so familiar that it seemed like they’d always be around.
But now she’s gone, and so is he.
“This is it,” he’d said. What? How? Why would you sell?
“I sold years ago,” he confessed. He’d been renting ever since.
I was stunned. Was I destined to never get a haircut again? “You can come to my house if you still want me to cut your hair,” he’d offered, but the look in his eyes suggested we both knew it would never happen. It was a kind gesture, but not the kind you actually take up. No need to be a servant in your own house.
What would he do now? He’d been scaling back the business for a long time. Once, the workload had been heavy enough that he’d hired an assistant, but Toni had long since gone. He’d said he didn’t take new customers anymore, either. It was too hard, pointless to get attached. It was his great strength and his ultimate weakness, that attachment.
So many Saturday mornings I’d spent in that chair, hair down to my shoulders, waiting for my turn. While I waited, he’d chat to me, or Mrs. Braithwaite, or Brett (who’d done time once and it had broken his heart). In all my years of going there I never saw the same “regular” in there twice, such was the expanse of his network.
On that final Saturday, we chatted out the back while he had a smoke. As a kid I’d always wondered about that back area. Turns out it was plastered with pictures of his own kids and grandkids, old salon paraphernalia, photos from his many overseas trips, and a radio constantly blasting ABC 702.
I’d thanked him for the last haircut he’d ever give me, and told him to keep the change. We shook hands, then embraced.
In my youth, I shed many tears in this place in vain attempts to avoid haircuts. As an adult, I shed one more.
The worst part is that two years later, it’s still for lease. I haven’t had a haircut in two years.
In a time when building a house meant plenty of brick, mortar and asbestos as opposed to 100% pure cladding, a housing boom meant it was time to get digging. The State Brickworks at Homebush was established by the NSW Government in 1911 to (publicly) provide for the demand for public housing and (privately) to shatter the stranglehold private owners had on the brickmaking industry, because no one makes money without the NSW Government getting a piece of the action. This greedy plan backfired at the onset of the Great Depression, when demand plummeted and the site started operating at a major loss. Ironically, it was sold to a private firm in 1936, and closed soon after.
Of course, the history of bricks in Sydney reaches back much further than Homebush. Brickfield Hill (near Haymarket) owes its name to its brickmaking past, and the St Peters brickyards are still in plain view – I just haven’t been there yet. The Homebush site was adjacent to the State Abattoirs, presumably to maintain the ambience, but more likely because the ground was rich in necessary brick ingredients. The Homebush Brickworks had also served to replace the troublesome State-run sand lime brickmaking operation at Botany, which had in 1914 fallen victim to a labourer strike, and never recovered.
After World War II, during which the site had been used as an ammunitions depot by the Navy, the NSW Government sensed an opportunity to make money, and reopened the Brickpit just in time for the second housing boom. If the first boom was a Newcastle, this one was somewhere between a San Francisco and an Indonesia. Chances are that at some point during your life in Sydney, you’ve stayed in a house built with bricks from Homebush. The site even had its own train station for workers to use, which opened in 1939.
It should be mentioned that during the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Brickworks was known by a different name to young hoons and petrolheads looking to blow off some steam on a Friday or Saturday night. ‘Brickies’ was a hot destination for drag racers setting off from the Big Chiefs (Beefy’s) burger joint on Parramatta Road, tearing off up Underwood Road in their Monaros towards Brickies Hill. This circuit can be seen in the 1977 film FJ Holden, which will be a major part of this blog sooner than later. The onset of development put a stop to this, but a subtle, if bizarre, homage to that era has been paid through the naming of certain streets around Hill Road, once the drag strip finish line: Nuvolari Place, named for Italian racing legend Tazio Nuvolari, and Monza Drive, after the endurance race of the same name. Sydney also hosted its first V8 Supercar event at the Olympic Park in 2009, echoing the days of weekend supercar stardom in less developed decades. Residents could still nostalgically enjoy extreme noise pollution and rowdy behaviour, but at least this time it was corporately sponsored.
From an industrial standpoint, they might as well have been making gold bricks at the ‘works for the next three decades…and then the 80s happened. The boom died down, the money dried up, and the Brickworks, which had for the most part of the 20th century poisoned the surrounding land and Homebush Bay, was clumped in the same basket as the increasingly irrelevant State Abattoirs and the volatile Rhodes industrial area – it had to go, but before it did, the crew of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (or perhaps The Conqueror 2, just give it a few years) chose the toxic site as a filming location. In 1988, the Brickworks were closed for good. Like the rest of the State-owned Homebush industrial zone, it was included in plans to reshape the area into the Sydney Olympic Stadium in 1992. The Brickpit was to become the tennis centre.
And so it would have gone, had not a funny, completely unexpected thing happened. The green and golden bell frog was nearing extinction by 1992. Once abundant in Sydney, numbers had fallen so low that a special breeding program was established at Taronga Zoo in the hope that the frog could be saved. As preliminary work was being done, 300 of the small frogs were discovered living in the quarry. Several times since, colonies of the undeniably appealing frog have turned up at proposed development sites, halting work, ruining plans, and causing PR-illiterate development bigwigs to shit a…well, you know. The frogs are no longer critically endangered, but they still have a long way to go.
As the rest of industrial Homebush was transformed for the Olympics, the Brickpit itself followed suit, undergoing heavy remediation. It’s now an environmental feature of the Olympic Park, and features the wonderful Ring Walk, a walkway suspended above the former Brickworks site complete with a giant pond filled with what can only be described as Smylex. Those frogs must be mighty happy.
It’s funny…we spent the better part of last century digging this place up and sending it off all over the city for our homes, but the frogs cut out the red tape and came to the place itself, making it their home in less than a decade. We didn’t start building units here until years later. Am I saying a frog could run Mirvac or Lend Lease?