To the North (Memoir Part Two)

(Part One)

All good things must come to an end before they get stale. Ask fans of the Big Bang Theory, or go to a concert by any music icon and watch the rush for the bathroom when they announce "and here's one from my new album".  The fun times of the 1980s dragged on a little too long, and dragged Australia into recession; as interest rates soared, my parents decided this was the perfect time to leave our crowded Northern Beaches apartment and buy a house. This interesting timing put Sydney property beyond reach, so we all piled into the car - air conditioned and smoke free by now, we were moving up in the world - and headed up the newly completed F3 freeway towards the Central Coast, looking for a home. 

This was just the first of many such drives; the Proclaimers had recently released their only hit song, the iconic "500 Miles" (and whatever happened to them? They seemed destined for such a promising future). Sister J and I would sing along, imagining that despite the fact that our journey was some 440 miles short of 500 - I obsessively counted the kilometres off the road distance signs - that the song was about our journey, us.

My parents settled, and set their hearts on, a newly built house at a place on the northern half of the Coast with the implausibly exotic name of Budgewoi, and we picked out our bedrooms and where we would play, and, high on a rich diet of Enid Blyton, I imagined that somehow the scraggy Eucalypt in the yard would furnish a lavish, multilevel tree house, where myself and the friends I was sure to make would catch thieves and find hidden treasure troves, have adventures with fairies, and be whisked off to distant lands in a flying chair. I may have been a designated a "gifted and talented" student, but one of my gifts was not a firm grip on reality. I won't tell you how old I was when I learned Santa wasn't real, because you're looking at a screen right now and I don't want you to snort coffee out your nose. 

But somewhere along the line, despite handshakes and deposits, the house fell through, and we were back to square one. It was decided we'd try a bit further north. And then, driving on the Pacific Highway up the east coast of Lake Macquarie, my mother saw the entrance to the lake at the Swansea channel - all white sand and green mangroves against the turquoise water. We pulled into a real estate agency right there, and the agent recommended to my parents a nice little house in a place a bit further up the lake, towards Newcastle. So we went and looked, at the white weatherboard cottage. It was in a quiet street, safe, where we us city kids could ride our bikes. The house needed work, sure, but my parents assured each other it was cosmetic work. (We all would have laughed about this in years to come if we'd been laughing about anything by then). And the little suburb the house was in had an even lovelier and more exotic name - Valentine. The house became ours, and that is how I became a Novocastrian. 

(Now, I'm sure there are a few of you right now saying "wait! Valentine is in Lake Macquarie, not Newcastle!". If your not from Newcastle or Lake Macquarie - however they are defined - please feel free to skip this bit. Anyway, debates over who is Jewish or whether the Simpsons is worth watching after Season Ten pale in significance and emotion compared to the arguments - nearly always by residents of Lake Mac council area - over what constitutes Newcastle and what constitutes Lake Macquarie. Can we be sensible here? Lake Macquarie is a lake, as those of you who are feeling particularly sharp today will have no doubt already ascertained; it's also a local government area. 

What it is not is any sort of actual town or city; there is no town centre, no CBD, no focus. And so naturally, those especially living in the northern reaches of the lake turn to Newcastle, just to the north, as that focus. Growing up, we considered ourselves Novocastrians; Newcastle was "town", where we went into town, where we shopped and went out at night. Yes, for the far-flung southern parts of the lake, such as Morriset, claiming a Novocastrian identity is sort of ridiculous. But to claim that Charlestown - the region's commercial and medical service hub - is not part of Newcastle is akin to saying Chatswood isn't in Sydney. Let's take it case by case, not insist that anywhere that falls under the lake council area is no part of Newcastle and never was. Okay, back to the story. I'm starting to see why David Foster Wallace was so damn keen on using footnotes). 

Valentine was a pretty quiet sort of a place. Emphasis on pretty, and very heavy emphasis on quiet. It was, and still is I imagine, the kind of place you'd describe as a great place to raise your kids - which often translates as the last place on Earth many kids, especially older ones, want to be. It was on the lake, surrounded on three sides by bush, with only one road in and out at the time. The nearest supermarket and library were at Belmont, four unwalkable kilometres away along a narrow winding road; the closest cinema and large shopping centre at Charlestown, ten kilometres to the north. We'd gone from busy, built up Dee Why, to quiet and isolation. I was at a funny, in between age at the time. I enjoyed the opportunities to ride my mountain bike over the dirt tracks, to climb, to wade in the lake and fish with a hand line; but I was also on the cusp of adolescence and longing for shops, activities, movies, the city. 

It was around this time I began to notice that my parents were unhappy; with themselves, with each other, and with me. When you're a small child, especially one as emotionally clueless as me, you don't really notice if your parents are happy or not; they're all you know, and everything seems normal, until it isn't. I began to be aware that other kids weren't as afraid as we were, weren't always walking on eggshell, weren't always on alert for the next minefield, that trigger beneath the surface that could blow up at any time.

It wasn't an easy time for anyone. My mother had never learned to drive, which wasn't too much of an issue in a busy part of Sydney, but was a big problem in an isolated hamlet surrounded by bush with a handful of small shops and only a few buses out a day. She felt lonely, bored, trapped and miserable, and received little solace from my father, who hadn't been quite cut out for marriage and parenthood in the first place and osciallated between overbearing and absent. I was no less awkward than I'd ever been, and a new school didn't help matters. Poor J was simply lost in the noise. The outings we'd at least enjoyed in Sydney came to an end. Around this time, I began to retreat from the dull and difficult real world to the world inside my head; not a world of magic and fantasy, but a world of potential and analysis of how things could be better. I would spend much of the rest of my time there whenever things got hard.

That first Christmas after the big move, we travelled back to Sydney to spend the holiday with family friends, a custom that developed during my parents' early years in Australia with no extended family. Our first morning back was one of those warm and sunny mornings during that quiet time between Christmans and New Year when nothing much gets done. J and I were playing pop-o-matic Trouble in our bedroom when suddenly the house gave a huge, sickening lurch from on side to the other and back again with a horrible crunching noise; our toys tumbled off the shelves, the walls and floor shook as though shaken by a malevolent giant. Without any frame of reference for what's going on, your mind just goes blank, until I found my voice and started to scream, and as the shaking stopped I ran to find my mother, J at my heels. Everyone in the neighbourhood, as bewildered as us, headed outside, to much speculation as to what happened - mine subsidence? Gas explosion? Someone turned on local radio, who at first were as puzzled as the rest of us as to what had happened, until within a few hours it transpired what had actually happened. Earthquake.

Along with the closure of BHP and the opening of the 24 hour drive through at King St Maccas, the 1989 Earthquake is probably the seminal event in the history of modern Newcastle; it destroyed significant parts of the inner city, and Newcastle was never the same again. The shock of the event was heightened by the fact that despite that the original inhabitants of the region, the Awabakal people, had an oral history of spirits that made the ground shake, the European arrivals paid little heed, and a history of earth tremors was largely unknown in the area. The death toll of 13 is horrifying enough, but it could be seen in some ways that someone was looking out for Newcastle that day. The quake occurred at 10.27 am on December 28, when schools and businesses are shut and everyone is on holidays. Given the many office and school buildings which were destroyed, if the quake had struck six weeks later on a weekday when school was in session, the consequences could have been catastrophic. Or consider that the largest number of fatalities occurred at the Newcastle Worker's club, which collapsed during the earthquake. Despite the Christmas holidays, the club would normally have expected a reasonable attendance for the morning's games of Housie. But that day there happened to be a bus strike on (a television interview with a transport official at the local bus depot regarding the strike happened to catch the quake live on camera), so the club was almost empty. That night, a concert featuring Split Enz and Crowded House, with many hundreds in attendance, was due to take place in the club auditorium on the first floor; the auditorium collapsed and was completely destroyed in the earthquake, empty except for a single roadie setting up for the night's events, who tragically was one of those killed.

Having only lived in Newcastle for a few months at the time and still being a child, I didn't appreciate at the time the full impact of what was lost in the quake. Visit any of the Facebook pages devoted to reminiscences of the city and you will see it lamented that the earthquake destroyed Newcastle as it was. But I'm not so sure about that. People had already abandoned going into town to shop in favour of air-conditioned suburban shopping centres (and abandoned the public transport necessary to support high street shopping strips) before the earthquake, not just in Newcastle but across the consumerist world. And there is still a very impressive stock of heritage buildings in the CBD, particularly as you get towards the beach. The efforts in redeveloping Newcastle after the earthquake may in fact have saved us from less desirable large scale commercial redevelopment in the following years (unfortunately, this kind of unattractive large scale projects, with little regard for heritage, character, height limits or community concerns are starting to spring up over the last few years).  So yes the earthquake was very sad and a terrible tragedy for those who were injured and the loved ones of those who lost their lives, but it also marked opportunity, and above all forged together the Newcastle community, the Newcastle spirit of being tough and unified. I appreciated this; in the years to come, we'd all need it.


Writer's Note: This is the second of what is planned as a ten part series on my life, such as it is. All recollections are based on my somewhat wobbly memory. Names of those who are not public figures will be changed. New updates posted every Monday afternoon, Australian Eastern Daylight Time. Hope you enjoy, and please leave feedback below. 

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