Monday, February 28, 2011

Crumbling Cemeteries Part II

Things I like about Sydney No. 49: Crumbling Cemeteries Part II

Daniel and I used to live in Newtown in Sydney's Inner West. This is where people who never want to grow up live, a suburb crowded with perpetual adolescents, greying Peter Pans all. Forty-year old men clutch skateboards under their arms whilst ordering their soy latte to go; ancient spray-paint artists flog their wares on the pavement; script editors sit in cafes all day long pencilling ammendations into their scripts. Tattoo parlours next to cheap Thai restaurants next to second-hand fashion boutiques line the streets.

There are plenty of genuine adolescents and students leisurely meandering about and an inordinate number of lesbians.  I always felt obscenely naked in Newtown, walking around the area without a tattoo and conversely ludicrously overdressed wearing shoes and socks instead of flip-flops (sorry, I mean thongs).

There are only a few things I miss about Newtown's Camden Town-in-the-sun vibe. One is Berkelouw Bookshop (secondhand department) and its attendant cafe (and their eggs florentine). The other is Camperdown Cemetery.

Camperdown Cemetery is the oldest in Sydney but much of it is has been removed to make way for a public park. In 1946 all the gravestones in the area designated for the park (eleven hectares in all) were dug up and placed inside a new perimeter wall marking the much-reduced cemetery. Idiotically, these transplanted gravestones were bolted onto the inside of the brick wall with steel pins and nearly all have subsequently shattered as the pins quickly rusted under Sydney's relentless sun and rain. Beyond the wall, children and dogs run about and picnics are unwittingly eaten on a grassy hill stuffed full of corpses. The wall itself is now patently considered the property of graffiti 'artists'.

At the entrance to the remaining cemetery is a magnificent Moreton Bay fig tree planted in 1848.

To the right of this is a lodge or cottage of the same period which has been criminally neglected. It's lived in by Christians, friends of the vicar, who himself dwells in the larger, newer and similarly decrepit vicarage opposite. Unfortunately, they're far too busy saving souls to save buildings. Each Sunday they set up trestle tables outside the lodge and welcome anyone in for a post-service lunch complete with tea from a gigantic urn (not a glass of wine in sight). Every time I passed them, quietly praying over their outdoor picnics, I wanted to march furiously in, like Jesus into the temple crowded with moneylenders, turn over their tables and chairs, and chuck them out for their filthy abuse of Sydney's heritage. Then I'd move in, take over with Daniel, respect the lodge and lovingly restore it.

I felt similarly angry about the cemetery itself which, just as the one in the last blog, is falling apart at the seams. However, this isn't entirely the church's fault because the wretched local Council have refused to take any responsibility for cleaning up the graveyard. It is open to the public and regularly abused by hordes of teenagers drinking, smoking, screwing and leaving all their debris behind but nevertheless any cleaning has to be done by the vicar, his wife and their volunteers. I used to go there on daily walks with Sniff and would carry a plastic bag to fill up with various unpleasant bits of rubbish but wasn't up to dealing with soiled mattresses, broken chairs, supermarket trolleys...

Decrepitude can however be rather picturesque. And thanks to the dedicated work of some local botanists parts of the cemetery were always brimming with rare, native plants cascading over fading tombs.

The church itself, surrounded by mature palm trees, is a lovely honey colour and its steeple, after a year wrapped in blue plastic, has been lovingly restored. Within the remains of the cemetery are the remains of some famous Australians and my favourites are these:

Isaac Nathan: composer and the ‘father of Australian music’, now forgotten as a composer but remembered as Sydney's first tram victim. When returning to his home in January 1864, alighting from Sydney's first horse-drawn tram, he was accidentally drawn inexorably under its relentless wheels...

The wonderfully named Bathsheba Ghost: convict and Second Matron of the Sydney General Hospital.

William Moffat: printer, stationer, and engraver with, once, "the handsomest shop in Sydney".

Nicholas Charles Bochsa: Napoleon’s harpist eloped from London with Sir Henry Bishop's opera-singing wife but he died after they gave but one concert together in Sydney.

Sir Thomas Livingstone Mitchell: explorer and land surveyor who gave his name to the fantastic pink and white ice-cream sundae-like Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo.

Eliza Donnithorne: purportedly the inspiration for Miss Havisham in Dickens’s Great Expectations, jilted on her wedding day she refused to have the wedding feast removed from the table and kept her front door permanently ajar in case her absconding lover should return.

There is also a large tomb commemorating the victims of the Wreck of the Dunbar. This clipper ship (clippers were the fastest sailing boats of the mid-ninteenth century) went down off Sydney Heads in August 1857 after a voyage from England, with all but one of the 122 people aboard perishing. The wreck "had a profound effect on the people of Sydney, because nearly all the passengers were Sydney residents returning home". The new perimeter wall created when the cemetery became a tenth of its original size has to bulge outwards to incorporate this tomb as Sydneysiders wouldn't countenance its removal into the smaller site.

Many of the other graves bear testament to the fact that most people in the nineteenth century died at an extremely young age - of measles, diptheria, snake-bites, teething (those pesky mercury based teething powders), drowning...It's best not to dwell too long on the dates borne on the gravestones but rather to wander aimlessly admiring vistas and taking in the effect as a whole of slowly decaying memorial grandeur. I highly recommend it as a soothing tonic or antidote to the adolescent angst and narcissism of nearby King Street.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Crumbling Cemeteries Part I

Things I like about Sydney No. 48: Crumbling Cemeteries Part I

Having sworn off cars in London ("What's the point," I would cry, "there's always the No. 38 bus?!") I have learned that, here in Sydney, having a car is a good thing. After all, there is no number 38 bus or at least none that compares - all Sydney buses are best avoided. The woeful timetables, the impossibility of crossing town from, say, Newtown to Paddington, the decrepit vehicles, the overcrowding - I have been known to go on and on about the pitiful state of Sydney's public transport system. This is a town that had, by the end of the 1960s, under pressure from the all-powerful petrol lobby, entirely destroyed its perfectly good tram network and then forgotten to replace it with anything else. I must remember to write to Clover Moore (Sydney's mayor) before I leave, so appalled am I by Sydney's public transport. (The people who ride it and the drivers who navigate it on the other hand are unfailingly polite and London's No. 38 bus passengers could definitely learn a thing or two about courtesy from their counterparts in Sydney).

All of which means that having a car is necessary to explore and navigate this sprawling city. Without our trusty Honda, courtesy of Daniel's mother, this blog would be much impoverished.

On Monday morning I had to take said car for its annual check-up in order to be able to renew what the Australians irritatingly call the Rego (registration to you or I). Our particular rip-off mechanic of choice is just up the Pacific Highway which means that, having abandoned the car to its no doubt expensive fate, I can eschew the offered courier service to the nearest station and simply walk home.

So there I was, tramping the six-lane Pacific Highway, extremely thankful that our recent heatwave had finally broken  - an ordeal which began with seven continuous days of a life-quenching 35 degrees and culminated last Saturday with a temperature of 42 degrees followed by "the hottest night in history" (see The Sydney Morning Herald, Monday 7th February. 2011).  I crossed the road to turn down towards Greenwich and, on glancing back at the side of the road I'd just been walking along, noticed that I had unwittingly been following a long wall enclosing an enormous over-grown tract of land. I re-crossed the road and tried to peer over the wall and through the tangled shrubbery, following the highway until I could see more. Soon, I spotted a crumbling gravestone. And then another, and another, and another...

I'd stumbled across a hidden gem, namely the Gore Hill (Catholic) Memorial Cemetery. An enormous swathe of land, completely neglected and overgrown (apart from one choice corner of which more later), surrounded by high-rise buildings and noisy freeways, established as long ago as 1868 but with its final burial performed in 1974. A tumbledown oasis. A grassy, wild-iris-strewn remnant. A testimony to the passing of time and to the ultimate futility of life, ignored by the twenty-first century which roars by on all four sides, entirely oblivious to its charms and caring nothing for its meanings.

Many of the graves date from the First World War and most of them are of modest size and appearance. However, there are some enormous mausoleums dedicated to wealthy families and some of the monuments have exquisite carving and decoration. What they all have in common is utter neglect...

I particularly liked this bird, forever frozen mid-peck, and these ivy leaves delicately picked out on another gravestone nearby.

As for the one groomed- and cared-for corner in this fearfully under-provisioned place (shame on you Sydney), it is dedicated to Australia's first and only-recently canonised Saint, Mary McKillop. She was buried here from 1909 to 1914 but, in the way of saints, her body has been removed elsewhere and, no doubt, bits of it are distributed all over Australia by now, displayed in little caskets and cases: fragments of bones, toes, hairs, strips of skin all delicately laid-out on velvet or encased in bejewelled glass phials. Catholics are so weird...

Here's what Gore Hill Cemetery has of Mary now that her remains no longer remain:

Bloody hilarious. Face like a hatchet and hands like spades. You wouldn't want to encounter her down a dark alley, would you?

My favourite gravestone was the following and, in case you can't read its inscription, here it is:

In loving memory of Bernard Bede Kieran
Died 22 December 1905 Aged 19 years
Erected by the public as a tribute to this champion swimmer of the world.
He won his laurels by courage, self denial, and patient
effort, His achievements and manly qualities will long
be remembered in this, and other countries in which
his victories were gained.

(If you ask me,  from the looks of her statue, Mary McKillop will be remembered by her manly qualities too...)

Here is a photo of Bernard Bede Kieran taken from the web.

His illustrious (and unfortunately attenuated) career began very unpromisingly, so much so that by the age of 13 he was classified as a juvenile delinquent. Consequently, in March 1900, his mother had him committed to the nautical school-ship Sobraon. (I suppose you could do that in those days...) He then took up swimming and, as the monument implies, went on to win many a competition in both Australia and the big, wide world. When he competed in the King's Cup in London in 1905 by the invitation of the Royal Life-Saving Society a spectator shouted: "He's a fish not a man!" after a sensational record-breaking 600 yards in 17.6 seconds. Unfortunately he was to die but a few months later on the operating table, having his appendix removed...A good friend of mine (Gary) will very much sympathise with this tale at this moment in time having only just survived a similar appendicectomy. The appendix. Still a problem, over one hundred years on...

Here's to Gary Carter and to Bernard Bede Kieran, and to the excellent manly qualities of both!