“How old do you think she is?” I was asked tonight by a friend and colleague. “At least seventy”, I said, “I often see her riding her gopher (scooter) around the streets of Surry Hills”. “At first she seemed apprehensive when she was driving it on major roads, but now she seems quite confident”, I added.
We were chatting about the former Les Girls performer, Carmen who was giving a special performance at the Museum of Sydney. Martin and I were at the launch of a photographic exhibition called Up the Cross: Rennie Ellis & Wesley Stacey.
In opening the exhibition, the playwright Louis Nowra, who has lived in the cross for about twenty years, noted the commonality he had with the photographers: they were all from Melbourne. He observed that it’s often people who come from another place, who often see a city with different eyes, and who in turn end up loving it more than those born and bred. Some of the best writing about New York, he observed, is usually from people born in other parts of the world. It’s a thought which had some resonance for me, as spent the first 30 years of my life outside Sydney.
The biggest laugh he got was when spoke about the sex shops. “People would rather whack off at home in front of the internet than go to a strip joint, these days”, he joked. In a wonderfully eloquent speech, Nowra went on to talk about how much the cross had changed and yet had also remained the same. He spoke, for example, about the ongoing connection between rich and poor in the area, citing the example of a homeless man who lived outside his apartment, and the ongoing relationship people in his apartment block have with that man. He also located Kings Cross as a place where, for many years, you went to disappear or to discover your community. That said, he noted the Cross has changed with gentrification, and that many of the groups of people which made the cross interesting – the transexuals, the gays, the experimental artists and the working class base – had moved or expanded to other nearby suburbs including Newtown and Surry Hills.
I thought it was a really great exhibition, a real slice of life of a time when Kings Cross was a little different to what it’s like now, but still quite similar also. My favourite images included a wonderful panorama of Whisky Au Go Go, a celebrated nightclub and an image of a “nightclub MC”. “You won’t see sideburns like that anymore”, a woman said to me as we looked at the image together. The exhibition is highly recommended, dear reader. And finally, the answer to the question, “How old is Carmen?” Close to eighty, apparently…