What I Did on my Holidays, Part One

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Published by Matthew Davidson on Wed, 09/02/2022 - 4:11pm in

TL;DR: I drank. A lot.

We begin on Friday morning at Sawtell station. Yes, that's all of it. No bustling phalanx of porters, no guards or ticket collectors, no dining room serving Devonshire teas, no passengers apart from yours truly. This is not a consequence of Covid; this is normal.

In fact I'm astonished to find that I'm actually able to get the train, rather than a replacement bus service, as was the case for my last trip down to Sydney. That was a nightmare. A tin can full of hillbillies, knees hard up against the seat in front of you, a dozen excuse mes, sorrys, and thank yous between your seat and the stinking lavatory. Thank God I don't have to go through that again.

The train arrives dead on time, stopping for nobody but little old me. I'm drunk with the power to halt an entire train single-handed.

There are some cows to look at. Which is nice. You don't get cows from a car window now that it's all motorway between Coffs and Sydney.

I catch up on podcasts. Really enjoyed this one with Bill Mitchell wandering off core Modern Monetary Theory into politics a bit more than usual.

Not that many people in my carriage, so I'm not bumping elbows with anybody. No screaming babies, and the only yammering hillbillies are some distance away and only going as far as Port Macquarie for a music festival. No prizes for guessing what genre of music it is.

The situation appears altogether too good. I'm prepared for the nine hour trip: a packet of pork scratchings and three plastic soft drink bottles. One is cool from the fridge, another cold from a few hours in the freezer, a third frozen overnight in the freezer. Your classic alcoholics' Goldilocks strategy: take each one in series when it's just right.

My patented blend: cardboard box wine, a splosh of fruit juice to disguise the fact that it's box wine, and if I'm feeling fancy perhaps some herbal tea but otherwise just water to get it down to somewhere approaching beer strength. I hear that in Mediterranean countries it's common to drink watered down wine with meals. Obviously not good quality wine, but with the horrible stuff I can afford to drink, there are no rules.

Well, there is one rule: no BYO drink on NSW Transport vehicles. But that rule obviously only applies to amateurs, not responsible professionals. Moreover, as I trust I need not stress with too much stressiness: nine hours! There is too much Australia. We need a good tailor to take it in. It's really quite baggy.

While looking for an unoccupied lavatory, I find that the front two carriages are completely empty. It actually is a wonder that I'm not on a bus.

It's gone noon, and the entertainment value of the cows is diminishing, so I crack open bottle number one. Bracing, but not technically abusive. You would be within your rights to demand your money back, but no court in the land would award you damages.

We stop to let a northbound passenger train go past. There's only a single track running along the East coast of Australia, and few sidings where trains can pass each other. Accordingly, everything is very tightly scheduled. If your train is more than a few minutes late, it's missed it's "window" and is obliged to make way for everything else. So you get later, and later, and later.

As a natural pessimist, I assumed that in the unlikely event that the train turned up at all, that this would be the case (as it had been on previous trips). From which it logically follows that the scheduled eight PM arrival time in Sydney could only be the product of pure unicorns-and-rainbows thinking. So I had the perfect excuse to book a hotel room rather than change trains for a further fifty minute suburban trip down to the family estate in the Shire.

The ostensible purpose of my journey is to partake in a solemn ceremony involving scattering my late father's ashes from the deck of a Sydney Harbour water taxi. I'm not entirely convinced that feeding the fish of Port Jackson is the sort of thing he'd have been enthusiastic about — at least not in this capacity — but my mother seems to think it a good idea.

I really haven't a clue about the propriety of such things, so I'm more than happy to go along with whatever wiser heads than mine consider appropriate, but I would rather not go back to the old house. I stayed a few days there on my last Sydney trip a couple of years ago as a sort of dare to myself, wandering about the unpaved suburban streets where I spent my childhood, thinking that as a forty-[mumble] year old grown-up I was by now surely immune to the enervating effects of that nasty, violent, ignorant, bigoted environment. (Not the house itself, mind; my parents are/were almost entirely harmless. It's the ghosts milling around it that I cannot exorcise.) I ended up in a massive funk which persisted for weeks afterward.

Also I'm now of a certain age, and I appear to have gone through The Change. I get terribly emotional about things. I must say it's quite unexpected and embarrassing. In this condition I couldn't stand spending even a couple of nights in a house where my father would now consistently fail to be where I expect to find him. I'd be a wreck. So I told my mum that, on the grounds that I would be feeling very much like just flopping into bed on arriving at Sydney Central, rather than embarking on a further long commute, a hotel made perfect sense. I'd meet everybody in town the next day, and pop down for a visit the day after. She seemed satisfied with that excuse.

In fact things are going altogether too well. The train remains stubbornly on schedule. As we get into Wauchope, mobile phone signal returns, and I get an SMS. The train for my return journey has been cancelled and replaced with a coach service. Ah, equilibrium has been restored.

Quaint little country towns flash by, as do the podcasts. The Something About the Beatles podcast has a few episodes of first reactions to the Peter Jackson doco based on the footage and audio recorded in January 1969 for the vague project which the following year became the film/album Let it Be. Titled the Musician’s Get Back, I expected the podcast to be a trainspotter's guide to vintage musical/audio equipment and a complete yawn, but it's (mostly) about group dynamics and those four (or five, or six, or seven) guys who love each other, despite and because of everything. I get quite teary (The Change again - and maybe the wine).

The country around the Hunter Valley is gorgeous. You don't see any of it from the motorway. Rolling green hills which put one in mind of James Herriot and the brothers Farnon rolling up their sleeves and startling a cow or three.

There's a limit to how much of a fifty gram bag of pork scratchings one should consume in one hit if one is to avoid nausea (for the record, it's about ten grams), so I go to the dining car for a sausage roll fresh from the drawer it's been stewing in since dawn, and a can of alleged beer.

It's 330ml of mid-strength lager. Australia likes it's beer flavourless, but this is really the apotheosis of the antipodean brewers' art. To all intents and purposes, the can was already empty when it was sealed. I'll refrain from citing the brand so as to avoid a stampede of connoisseurs rushing to not experience it.

Eight dollars! Eight flipping dollars! Just for the zero point nine standard drinks, then another five for the sausage roll!

I love the name Fassifern. I think it should be a term of mild rebuke. i.e. "Oh, don't be such a fassifern!" You instantly understand what it means by the way it sounds. Never been there. The place, I mean; I've probably been a fassifern for most of my life.

Appear to have mobile signal for most of the time now, which was definitely not the case on previous trips. I briefly wonder if it's because of all the Gates/Soros 5G microchips in my bloodstream, but my old phone is only 4G. Did they stealthily vaccinate my phone as well? The bastards!

So I exchange a few texts with Ruben, which helps pass the time.

Newcastle appears to be encroaching on Gosford, or vice versa, as there is now rather little open space between them. From here on you're essentially in the outer suburbs of Sydney. I used to work with people who would commute into the city from this distance.

As there's more built environment, I'm getting more alert my my surroundings. Multi-story buildings! Public transport! Pedestrian crossings! Pedestrians! All the sinful delights that are foreign and abhorrant to the denizens of Coffs Harbour.

Indulge me for a moment: Imagine being confronted with a vista of the most glorious natural splendour. Gravity-defying geological formations. Waterfalls, ravines, rivers and streams. Lush, luxuriant plant life of unimaginable variety; herds of gigantic herbivorous mammals, placid and graceful; gorgeously sleek and agile predators; eye-wateringly colourful birds soaring and swooping to pluck impossibly bejeweled insects from mid-air. And just off to one side a single squalid shack in the distance, with a thin wisp of smoke rising from an open fire.

I've tried several times, in conversation with self-avowed misanthropic nature lovers, to persuade them that in that situation they could not stop their eyes being drawn to that shack. They refuse to concede this, but I am certain that we are attuned to seeking signs of the presence of other human beings. It tickles us in a way we cannot resist. We are homo sociali. I say this as the most introverted person I know. (Not that I know that many people, what with being the most introverted person I know.)

As a lifelong socialist and an amateur macroeconomist, I should abhor metastasising high rise and construction cranes on the horizon as indicators of neoliberal welfare-for-the-rich and impending economic collapse, but my eyes widen and pulse quickens at the sight of them.

Then suddenly Sydney. Oh, Eddy Avenue! How I've missed you!

A block and a half away from Central Station is George Street and the art deco Great Southern Hotel. They gave me the perfect room for a web developer who doesn't like to be found.

If I ever own a place to live, I'm having hotel carpeting throughout.

Now, about that plan to collapse straight into bed… Sod that!

I drop my bags and head up George Street, or "SYDNEY'S STREET OF FEAR", as the Daily Telegraph memorably characterised it on a front page thirty years or so ago. Utter poppycock! I used to practically live on George Street when it was a solid strip of pubs, bookshops, junk food outlets, and video game arcades, and I've never felt so safe anywhere before or since.

A lot of pubs are now derelict due to the current crisis, or the previous crisis, or in anticipation of the next crisis. The first promising target from a nostalgia point of view is Cheers. In the late 80s it was a modest subterranean dive for people who wanted to avoid going to work or going home, but now it occupies several levels with huge sports-screens for vaping gamblers.

I buy a beer on the ground level and head downstairs to the den where so many of my brain cells sacrificed their all so that I might… well, "live" is perhaps too strong a word. At the bottom of the stairs there's a table with a couple of smiling callow youths who explain that the venue is closed to the general public for a private function. Spread out before them are a few open binders full of things in plastic pockets which appear alarmingly collectable. The youths are anxious to explain the nature of the function, saying that for a nominal cover charge I would be most welcome to join them.

It's at this point that my friend Ruben would have leapt eagerly into the fray, spending the whole night having a whale of a time, aquiring an exhaustive knowledge of a hitherto unfamiliar subculture and a bundle of lifelong friends. Alas, I am not that kind of person, so I make my excuses and head back upstairs.

I carry on uphill, past where there are no longer book liquidation stores, video game arcades, and junk shops all blaring the same tape loop of this one guy bunging on a cockney barrow boy accent, promising "You'll never pay full price again!"

Still, it's home.

One block east of the town hall is the Criterion. I remember in the 90s flicking through a guide to Sydney pubs which said it was the place to go if one happened to be a connoisseur of bulbous red noses. Is that supposed to be a bad thing? It's since been acquired by a particularly noxious pub chain who turned it into just another sports bar, but at least they haven't (yet) smashed out all the tiles and bricked in the leaded windows. Also, it's gone quite pink. Which is nice.

In more affluent times, I would never dream of staying out in town to drink on a Friday or Saturday night, these being the nights when the amateurs would spoil the atmosphere with their uncouth behaviour. However I've only a few days and want to make the most of it.

It used to be common for big hotels to have a number of bars in the one complex. I used to quite like the Tudor Bar on the first floor of the Hilton Hotel in Sydney. As the name suggests, it was all vacuum moulded fake timber and horse brasses, but easy on the eyes and a surprisingly cheap no-nonsense boozer for those in flight from reality.

Alas, there is no longer a first floor of the Hilton Hotel. It's been blasted away and replaced by a vast, glass-fronted empty space saying in effect "We don't need to make money from this real estate, but it amuses us to prevent others from doing so. So if you enjoy setting fire to hundred dollar notes in front of homeless people, this is the place for you." In that respect, it's like the similarly cavernous and glazed Apple store across the road containing a sparse smattering of lecterns with elegantly designed flat things propped up on them.

The one bar which the Hilton Hotel still appears to maintain is the Marble Bar. As the name suggests, every surface is at least faux-marble. It's like swimming in a Jackson Pollock kaleidescope. This is not a place for drinking in. It's a place for briefly gawping at and promptly fleeing. In my day it was pretty consistently empty. I supposed it was kept on as a gaudy monument to 1970s excess. Perhaps middle managers and their secretaries found it useful as a place to meet unobserved, I don't know.

Tonight it is packed with coked-up Hooray Henrys and Henriettas.

If ever there's a portent of an economic bubble about to burst, this is it. In my Sawtell finery, which to the untrained eye is indistinguishable from Sydney hobo rags, I feel distinctly unwelcome. As tradition demands, I gawp and flee.

A stroll past more shuttered venues once dear to my heart, and I find myself near the harbour, in the financial district. Knowing there's little joy to be had here I turn around and head back south up Pitt Street. There's a new pub on the corner of Hunter Street that looks enticingly empty. The girl behind the bar asks whether I want a pint or a schooner. I opt for the latter, and she pours me a half pint, which - not to be pedantic - is a hefty gulp or two shy of a schooner and charges me nearly ten dollars for it. A steady stream of beautiful people coming through the door and heading directly upstairs indicates that I'm just in the foyer of a far grander venue, not meant for the likes of me.

There's always street art. This piece is about as old as me. I used to roam this manor professionally back when mail boys used to carry high-denomination cheques from one place to another. Do digital mail boys meet to skive off in electronic pubs?

You must be this emaciated to shop here. Blimey. I'll stick to KMart.

Now, this is more like it. The Hotel Downing in Castlereagh Street. My ex-girlfriend used to work across the road, and I would occasionally wait for her in the other half of this pub which is now reserved for button-slappers. Thankfully, you can't see any of that from this bar, and the mandatory sport screens cover only two of the four walls, so you can keep your back to them and pretend they're not there. Also most of the customers appear to be staff, so there's a lovely family atmosphere. This pub I like.

And about time, too. There's a time and a place for dancing, and it's at the kitchen sink while doing the washing up. Anything else is an abomination. I can't remember which pub this sign was in…

But apparently I thought a distressed selfie in the mirror of the gents' lavatory would be sufficient to jog my memory later. Clearly it was time to revert to Plan A and flop into bed.

Continued in part two.