I really like history, learning about it, and documenting what I know.

Then and now

Darlinghurst History Walk

I spent the early part of the day teaching at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. As part of the lecture I gave, I repeated the mantra, “there are no boring stories, only boring story-tellers” which I’ve heard many times from radio consultant, Valerie Geller. She’s absolutely right. Just about any story can be interesting, so long as there’s someone interesting to tell the story.

And thankfully, the second part of the day was a combination of both: interesting stories and an interesting story-teller. As part of History Week, I participated in a Walking Tour of the Darlinghurst area conducted by History Council President Mark Dunn. I went on one of these history week tours last year and enjoyed it very much.

This year’s walk had more of a focus on the food and wine of the Darlinghurst area, as we visited the locations of former sly-grog shops, the sites of former butchers, and the sites of former pasta and pie factories to name but a few. We also took in some of the Razor Gang sites which are generating a lot of interest now, thanks to the Underbelly series on television right now.

Celebrations for the 200th Anniversary of Appin

Appin Bi-Centenary

“I have a connection to the pub across the road” I told the woman who was looking after things at St Bede’s Catholic Church in Appin today. “Two of my ancestors ran the pub back in the 1840s”, I told her, referring to William Rixon and Ann Hoare.

“There was a close connection between the church and the pub” she told me, pointing to the family, the Carolls who owned the pub and who ran it as a guest and boarding house, who were buried in the graveyard. “The sisters also used to have rooms there”, she added.

With a strong and long-term interest in family history, I hopped on a train early this morning and made my way to the 200th Anniversary Celebrations for Appin, located about 15km from Campbelltown in Sydney’s West. My ancestral connection to Appin is pretty much confined to the period when they ran The Union Revived. Their main connection was with Campbelltown itself, which is where William is buried, along with his mother, in the graveyard of the Anglican Church. I visited their graves also today, for the first time. Meanwhile, Ann went on to marry a few more times, moved closer to the city, and was finally burried under the name Ann Phibbs at Waverley Cemetery. I visited her grave a few months ago.

After a look around the St Bede’s Cemetery, I made my way down the street to watch the street parade. Mostly, the parade was made up of school groups, sports teams, organisations like the Rural Fire Service and pipe bands. I couldn’t believe there could be that many bagpipes in one parade, but then I guess, the area is called The Southern Highlands and the main town is Campbelltown. My favourites were a young girl, maybe five years old, who was impressively beating her drum in time, and seeing a 16 year old emo girl as part of one of the bands. Later I saw an emo boy dressed up in colonial gear which also gave me a bit of a giggle.

Naturally enough, there were art displays, Aboriginal cultural displays, sausage sizzles, jumping castles, and of course gözleme.

But for me, the most interesting thing was going to see the pub that was once run by some of my ancestors. The building is in a very poor state of repair now. There were no signs to say you couldn’t enter the building, so I just did. But as I walked through I needed to be particularly careful, as I discovered the floor could give way with one too heavy foot-step. “It’s a real shame it’s in such a poor state of repair”, a woman who was doing the same said to me as we passed each other.

I picked up a book about the town which mentions William Rixon’s brief period at the pub, and I placed an order for another book commemorating the anniversary.

And that cleaned me out of my planned spending money for the day which became a bit of a problem as I went to use the ATM at the servo. “It’s empty”, I told the bloke behind the counter. “Yeah, it’s been flat out since five o’clock this morning”, he told me. I reckon it was one of the busiest days in the history of Appin.

Ten green bottles

Colonial Wine Tasting

Ten green bottles

Ten green bottles

Talk about four seasons in one day. What began as a fine sunny day in Sydney, had, by mid-afternoon turned into something cold and wet. Cold and wet enough to drag out the possibly fake “North Face” rain jacket I bought in Beijing a few months ago. As the rain tumbled down, I could think of nothing better than an afternoon of wine tasting at Elizabeth Bay House.

And not just any kind of wine tasting. No, it was Colonial Wine Tasting, an event at Elizabeth Bay House put on by the Historic Houses Trust.

Having been to the Colonial Spice Dinner there a couple of years ago, I was intrigued when I saw the listing in the HHT’s semi-regular events calendar. So intrigued, I invited along fellow Blogger-Twitterer etc, Tom who had come with me to the Colonial Spice Dinner in April 2009.

According to the blurb associated with the event…

Like most gentlemen of his day, Alexander Macleay kept an extensive cellar and he produced grapes at his Elizabeth Bay and Camden properties. Colonial wine expert Dr Julie McIntyre will talk about tastes and wine production in the 19th century. Includes tastings in the cellar and light food.

Tasting in the cellar at Elizabeth Bay House

Tasting in the cellar at Elizabeth Bay House

The first part of the afternoon went into quite significant detail about the history of wine in Australia. For example, I learned there were cuttings on the First Fleet and that a “Wine Industry” was part of the vision for the colonial settlement of Australia. The historian, Julie went into a lot of detail locating this, both within temperance ideas about the so-called “civilising effect” of wine consumption (as opposed to other forms of alcohol), as well as lots of economic theories about free trade advanced by the likes of Adam Smith. Though, Julie did ask whether Adam Smith’s theories may have, in part, been influenced by his love of French wine in a period when wine from Portugal was given preferential trade status by Britain. While it was interesting, most of us were probably there more for the second part of the afternoon…

The second part of the afternoon was a series of tastings of Angove’s wines. The idea was to give us an idea of the style of wines which may have been enjoyed during colonial times in Australia. Naturally enough you’d expect sherry and brandy and so on, but there were also lots of varietals and blends. There were some lovely wines and some not so great also. For me, there was a bit of a buzz in re-connecting with Angove’s, since I lived for a couple of years just down the road from their winery at Renmark in South Australia. “It’s great to have a winery down the road”, I told the company representative, but noted that it tended to stink the house out during crushing season. Eek.

There was another connection from my past also, in that Alexander Macleay used to grow wine around Wagga Wagga, where I also lived for a time. It was wonderful to try to imagine how it must have been to have brought the wine all the way from Wagga in those days by bullock dray, and then to bring them to Elizabeth Bay House, all the way down those stairs.

Garage sale in the downstairs carpark

Garage sale in the downstairs carpark

Elizabeth Bay House is a gorgeous property with terrific views. And it was great to go down into the cellar and to do some tastings. The people who spoke were also very passionate about their interests.

By the end of the afternoon, as we emerged at about 6.20pm the weather had cleared somewhat. It was no longer wet, and no longer cold. Or maybe that’s just because I chose to drink instead of spit?

The other two really cool things about the day were having a drink with my friend Graeme tonight (and meeting a visiting tourist, and having a garage sale in the basement carpark. While most people were participating in the great garage sale trail (or whatever it’s called), it’s not so easy in an apartment block. But that didn’t stop a couple of enterprising women in our block who set up a stall in the carpark downstairs. “All a bit girly for my liking”, I told one of them, a woman I used to work with, commenting on the assorted dresses they were selling, but still congratulating them on the efforts, and by maintaining apartment block security by declaring the garage sale “for residents only”.

Fresh fruit and veg at Paddy's Markets

Chinatown Tour

Chillis to bring passion and romance into my life

Chillis to bring passion and romance into my life

“These will bring passion and romance into your life”, the bloke behind the counter said to me as I handed over my planned purchase. “That was the general idea”, I told him and we smiled at each other.

It was towards the end of an “Historical and Cultural Tour” of Chinatown, co-inciding with Chinese New Year Celebrations in Sydney.

I love a good walking tour, and when I saw this one advertised a few weeks ago, I signed up immediately. Interestingly, I recognised two couples from some previous history walks I’ve undertaken in Sydney.

Chinatown Tour

Chinatown Tour

Of those attending, I was probably about mid-range in the age department, and possibly knew a little bit more about Chinatown than many of the others attending judging by some of the questions asked. More than general interest in cultural activities and history, I also spend a fair bit of time in Chinatown due to its proximity to where I live and work. I eat at least one meal each week in Chinatown.

But even so, there are lots of things I didn’t know about, and lots of things I’ve passed without paying too much attention to them.

I’ve never really looked at the big archways at either end of Chinatown before. I’ve never noticed the wording about how it’s about “Chinese and Australian Friendship”. I’ve also never really closely looked at some of the ornamentation on the archways and on neighbouring buildings. “They’re more of the style of Northern China” our tour guide, an older Chinese man told us, noting the incline of the rooftops allowed rain and snow to fall to the gutters easily.

Behind the scenes at The Emperor's Garden

Behind the scenes at The Emperor's Garden

Our guide was a man in his 70s, I’d guess, who had lots of great anecdotal stories of Chinatown in the past. For example, he spoke about going to an opium den at a very young age with his father. And he had a great knowledge of some of the different families and family businesses of Chinatown, and who did what to whom and so on.

But as we walked around and looked at various buildings, I felt a certain sadness: it sounded like the Chinatown of today is not as interesting as it used to be. Our guide mentioned Chinatown is getting a bit of a make-over in the next three or four years, and that’s probably a good thing, because as I walked around, I also noticed the place could do with a good lick of paint.

Aside from the architecture and the history, it was also interesting to do a few things I wouldn’t normally do: such as visit the Chinese Ginseng Centre of Herbs, and go into the depths of the kitchen of The Emperor’s Garden Chinese Restaurant, one of my favourite places for a plate of roast pork.

And it was great to look a little more closely at things I’d normally pass quickly by, such as the Golden Tree (a great meeting place in Chinatown) and the offices of the Chinese Nationalist Party, the KMT.

Fresh fruit and veg at Paddy's Markets

Fresh fruit and veg at Paddy's Markets

The tour lasted two and a half hours. And at the end of it all, Colin and I went out for some yum cha at Hingara, which I now know is a restaurant which has been in Dixon Street (an incorrect spelling apparently, it should be Dickson) for over forty years (though now with different owners).

We chatted about a few things including the gorgeous looking peaches selling in Paddy’s Markets at the moment. Although it’s mostly thought Paddy’s is an Irish reference, by the way, there’s an alternative reading that it related to people from the rice paddys, we were told today. So at the end of yum cha, we popped in there, where I bought some peaches and apricots.

A lovely day, and a very enjoyable tour.

Grave for James O'Brien and Lena Noonan at East Lismore Cemetery

More History

Unmarked grave for Joan Kathleen O'Brien, East Lismore Cemetery

Unmarked grave for Joan Kathleen O'Brien, East Lismore Cemetery

I went in search today of details about the still-born child my mum and dad had back in 1953. As with many things in my family, it wasn’t something that was talked about. Indeed, when I mentioned it to one of my older sisters, and showed her the record from the online historical indexes of the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages, she seemed genuinely surprised.

Although unnamed on the BDM records, a visit to the Lismore Lawn Cemetery revealed she was buried on July 10, 1953 and that her name was Joan Kathleen O’Brien (named after an aunt). With a map in hand, I set off to the East Lismore Cemetery to find her, which I eventually did in an unmarked grave in the midst of another of other infant deaths. Although she doesn’t have a headstone, there’s a lovely tree overlooking her grave.

Grave for James O'Brien and Lena Noonan at East Lismore Cemetery

Grave for James O'Brien and Lena Noonan at East Lismore Cemetery

She’s also buried not far from my dad’s parents, James and Lena who died in 1944 and 1953, respectively. I was pleased to discover their previously unmarked grave also now had a heastone. I assume it must have been erected by the children/grandchildren of their son Matthew (known as Robert or Bob), who also now has a headstone. Perhaps it’s time for one for little Joan too?

Aside from a visit to my aunt – the one little Joan was named after – it was a day back at work for me. Although I’ve been doing lots of work over the last few days via the mobile and the netbook, I needed to go in today to sign a few things, make a few longer calls and so on.

And then tonight I went to the Tropical Fruits Film Festival at the Star Court Theatre. The Star Court was the cinema I used to go to most weeks as a child. Although a few things have changed, it remains relatively unchanged from the early to mid 80s renovation that occured. It was funny to hear the Film Festival spokesperson refer to it as an “old cinema”, as it seemed still modern in comparison with what I remembered as a child.

The films? There were a couple of good short films. My favourites were “Last Call” (about a bloke whose relationship with Mark failed because of his alcohol problem, who wants to get back with him, but who realises things have changed), “Oscars First Kiss” (about a male uni student chatting up a female class mate on a tram, but who ends up with an unexpected same-sex first kiss), and “Hens and Chicks” (about a lesbian couple with an eight year old daughter who need to have “the conversation”). All three were very enjoyable.

Less enjoyable was the longer featured called “Flow Affair”. It’s a fascinating story about “flagging” in the gay and lesbian communities of New York. “Flagging” is an art-form which involves a lot of twirling flags around in dance clubs, pride parades and so on. It’s quite an interesting story. It’s such a shame it was told so badly with almost no narrative evident. The film needed a damn good editor to chop at least 30 minutes out of it and to give it some structure, IMHO. It’s not enough to have a series of vignettes where a group of people keep saying over and over again little more than, “I like flagging. It makes me feel great”. Boring.

The main feature was a film from Romania called “Trip” about a group of twenty-somethings living in a share house of sorts who take drugs, have sex, and generally hang out in a pretty wild post-communist kinda way. It’s a pretty out there film, but I enjoyed it very much.

On the way home I called in to The Civic for a post film drink. It was pretty amusing to see a pretty average working class bar in my home town overtaken by the Sydney and Brisbane gays who’ve arrived for tomorrow night’s New Years Eve Party.

“You planning to have a bet”?, the barmaid asked me as she collected up the TAB information cards. “I think you’re safe to put them away”, I told her with a smile.