Friday, June 24, 2011

Getting the ferry to Ken's

Things I like about Sydney No. 60: Getting the ferry to Ken's

We are surrounded by water here in Greenwich. To begin with, there is the creek at the bottom of the garden which, as it acts as a conduit for rainwater, has been a raging torrent for the last week or so. Walk along the banks of the creek and you very soon reach the bays around Berry Island and Balls Head Reserve and can look out over vast expanses of busy waterways. (I took the photo that heads these pages from the giddy heights of Balls Head Reserve.) Greenwich itself culminates in Greenwich Point which, as the name implies, is a spit of land surrounded by water from which vantage point you can look over to the city.

Greenwich boasts both a ferry stop and Greenwich Baths, a sea-water swimming pool which opens for the summer months but which presents a rather sorry picture at this time of year:

Then there is the Greenwich Sailing Club (if you are of the yachting persuasion) which is always deserted during the week (no doubt because those who can afford a yacht have to put in some hours at their merchant bank) except for an ever-varying bunch of fisherfolk, angling for their supper from the Club's shores. At 3 p.m. today they consisted of a small buttoned-up old Chinese man (who had about four rods on the go), a burkha-clad bespectacled middle-aged woman, and a young morose-looking fat man in an anorak.  I asked the younger of the three what he'd caught today and he showed me some sizeable leatherjackets - so-called because you can slip off their skin in one easy movement...Two policemen made a brief drive-past just after this but they didn't bother to get out and check whether anyone was over-stepping the fishing allowances given in great detail on a large rather decorative sign:

Despite this overwhelming presence of water we unfortunately spend very little time on it. The Greenwich ferry stop is that little bit too far from our house to be really serviceable. And we don't, yet at least, have a yacht. Our neighbour does have a kayak strapped to the roof of his car but he's also one of those cycling types - forever donning his lycra and speeding off into the distance - and I'm sure that kayaking requires a certain amount of a) physical effort and b) discipline, both of which are in short supply at our house these days.

Which is why my trips to visit Ken are so special.

Ken Unsworth is one of Australia's most eminent sculptors and performance artists. His work is in public collections the world over - Denmark, Korea, New York, Poland, Holland - and is of course on permanent display in the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He is a fantastic man to know - funny, clever, generous, brimful of ideas, and, despite having just turned 80, full of boundless energy. He has also had the good sense and intelligence to commission me to write music for three of his recent installations/performances - the latest of which will be performed on Cockatoo Island in August.

Ken lives in Birchgrove, a rather upmarket suburb almost directly opposite Greenwich on the other side of the water. To get there via road is an incredibly complicated affair and takes forever - once over the Sydney Harbour Bridge you have to head for the less impressive Anzac Bridge, cross over that, weave your way through several suburbs and on and on and on...

To get there by ferry however is, literally, a matter of minutes. Two minutes to be exact. Hop on, sit down, stand up, hop off. It's great fun. And (sssssh!) more often than not, free...

The best ferries are the old yellow and green ones which are supremely characterful and charming. There are some newer ones plying the route and they simply don't compare. Instead of being worked in metal and wood they seem to be all plastic and inelegance so that I feel a great disappointment when they hove into sight, it's like being served Lambrusco at a party rather than Veuve Cliquot...

The ferries stick remarkably well to their scheduled timetable (at least during the off-peak hours when I use them). As they steam up to the ferry stop the water rushes madly against the jetty's posts, fishermen frantically reel in their lines, and the few waiting passengers excitedly get ready for the boarding ritual. (At least, I'm excited. There is something about journeying by water that still makes my heart beat that little bit faster).

You can always spot who is a tourist because they invariably rush to board the ferry as soon as it arrives whereas we in the know hang back for the "Boarding Ritual". The ferry operator has to first lasso his rope round the mooring pin to secure the boat. Then he drags a metal gangway plank across to the jetty to link the boat to shore and then he has to LET THE PASSENGERS OFF FIRST...Then, and only then, you can board.

The attempt to board before disembarking passengers is comparable to that mistake tourists always make on the escalators of the London Underground, despite the many signs, of standing on the wrong side. Which reminds me that here in Sydney people stand on the OPPOSITE side on escalators. As if to deliberately trip up all those smug Londoners (me) who sharply bark "Excuse Me" ten times a day at tourists on the Undergound.

(Although to add a further dimension to this escalator confusion, most people in Sydney simply stand still on escalators full-stop. On either side. As if walking has gone out of fashion...)

If you're lucky, the ferry operator in charge of embarkation is young and handsome and will amply fulfill any fantasy you might have about sailors. More often than not however they are rather gruff and wizened but do at least give off a reassuring air of being highly efficient in emergencies. The summer months tend to attract a better-looking class of seaman I have found...

Here's one of the old-style yellow and green ferries steaming across from Greenwich to Birchgrove without me on it. From Birchgrove you will soon reach Circular Quay via Balmain and Luna Park. And anyone one who comes to stay should do exactly that at my's one of those things that surely features high in the list in those tasteless "1,000 Things To Do Before You Die" books.

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