From Patagonia to the Pleasure Gardens

View from The Singular hotel, Patagonia

To mark the publication today of my story about The Singular Hotel Patagonia, in The Weekend Australian, I thought it might also be a perfect opportunity to celebrate the abundant pleasures of just staying put.

I’ve been doing a good deal of meandering about my neighbourhood; that being Botany, a neighbourhood of dubious reputation, largely unfounded.

The mean streets of Botany throw up, well, very little of worth, really, by way of mean-streetedness (unless, of course you’re down at the Pier Hotel for topless Fridays, or outside the Waterworks pub at Botany shops if there’s a drive-by pizza stoush). Nope, mostly it’s a sleepy, benign kind of place, an increasingly tenuous bastion of working-class families getting on with things.

Sixteen years ago, when we moved here, it had the feel of a little country town – tight-knit, independent, a million miles away from the Surry Hills you could get to in 10 minutes up the Eastern Distributor. “Ten minutes from anywhere,” we would crow – as we headed to Maroubra, La Perouse, Alexandria.

“Except you can get a park,” said the silver fox, who worries about that kind of thing.

Heritage, history, hysteria

Our neighbour, Mavis, who must now be nearing 90, liked to tell us, with Botany regularity, that she’d been born in our bedroom. She’d call tremulously over our back fence for the silver fox to go over there to change her light bulbs, and he’d pick his way down the corridor lined with stacks of paintings she’d copied from greetings cards, her dog, Curly, a matted mutt of uncertain provenance, snuffling hysterically at his shoes.

We’d stand out the front watering our little patches and she’d tell me of the days when she’d walk from her house to Maroubra through the fields, and how there were market gardens all the way to Sir Joseph Banks Hotel when it was on the water’s edge at Botany Bay. Her husband (long dead before we arrived), whose name she would never speak out loud, was known for his violent temper and a tendency to climb to the top of the roof, where he’d sit for hours, sulking and surveying the district views.

Mavis knew everyone and everyone knew her. Some of the old-timers still ask after her when I’m out walking the dog.

Her place had no inside toilet, no bathroom, barely a kitchen. The roof space between our semis was open, a real The Castle bodge-up; the original double-fronted cottage had just been split lengthways by Mavis’s father and bricked up. I’d lie in that ancestral bedroom staring up at the ceiling while the rats scratched across the rafters between No 2 and No 4 having rat swingers’ parties.

Industry, urbanity, electricity

Things have moved on, of course (including the rats, may they rest in peace), and Mavis is living in a nursing home way out west – happy as a pig in shit, apparently – being fed and looked after properly, something she hadn’t been able to do for herself for years and refused to let anyone else do for her. She insisted she wouldn’t leave “until I’m carried out in a coffin”. In the end, she had to make do with an ambulance, and Curly had to make peace with his Maker.

Now we share our common walls (bricked up all the way up through the roof space) with Battleship Potemkin, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post, a stern leviathan of a renovation, bulging with three raucous, demanding young boys and their parents who, while probably perfectly nice people in their pure, pre-parental state, now alternate, alternately, between stark, shrieking, frothingly mad and apologetically, shrugglingly resigned.

In that latter state, the father joins me to stand watering our little patches – his now paved in slate-grey slabs with a neat little Brazilian of vegetation along the front wall. We talk about how it’s getting harder to find a park these days, as the toasty notes of Sultana Bran cooking at the Kellogg’s factory down the road scent the warm evening air.

Botany was once – and still is, in parts – a hotbed of industrial activity, from Bing’s Car Service: Do it Once – Do it Right (now rebadged as Platinum Car Service: Do it Once – Do it Right to reflect the changing times, or so they tell me), to such upstanding corporate citizens as ICI (now Orica), whose civic legacy can be found on plaques at Sir Joseph Banks Park, where it has attempted to assuage its nefarious environmental practices by building edifices such as an arched gateway that leads to nowhere.

Considering the extent of the pollution that’s been slopped into the groundwater around these ’ere parts, it’s amazing that the abundant wild (and not so wild) life inhabiting Sir Joseph Banks Park survives at all – not a three-eyed fish, goose or lizard among them (put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mr Burns). There are plenty of carp, though, which regularly frighten the kiddies by launching themselves out of the virulent green waters of the ponds to feast on the new season’s ducklings and goslings.

Sir Joseph Banks investigates mercury levels of Botany’s waterways

Sir Joseph Banks Park – with its life-size sculptures of exotic animals (gorillas, elephants, camels, bears), dank pools, paperback alleys and straggling swathes of native bushland – was once a summer seaside playground, and the grand old Sir Joseph Banks Hotel a Victoriana sanctuary for country and city travellers. Those animals – whose bulky black forms make such enticing climbing frames for those carp-traumatised kiddies – pay tribute to this former Pleasure Gardens, site of Sydney’s first zoo. Until just a few years ago, Australia’s oldest professional running race, the Botany Bay Gift, was held on the running track here. We watched Matt Shirvington and his shorts fly round it in 2000, in fact. Not a dry eye in the house.

Sadly, in these litigious times, the Gift is no more – the cost of public indemnity insurance put paid to that, and to the Australia Day fireworks celebrations. Worse, much like everywhere else in the grandiosely named City of Botany Bay, large, jarringly blue signs prohibiting anything remotely pleasurable are now the park’s most prominent architectural feature.

Sir Joseph Banks Park – the elephants in the room

Apart from the papier maché elephant herd, that is.