John Walsh's Column

Share
Related Topics
It's the end of winter here in Sydney. The snow-ploughs have been churning up the Pacific Highway for days, the sand-gritters are out in force, rudimentary snowmen line the suburban gardens of Paddington, the cab drivers all wear mittens, tyre-chains are mandatory for anyone venturing off the motorway, and ... No, I'm afraid I can't keep this up. It is winter in Australia, but - much as you might wish them the kind of freeze-your- nuts-off winter that Britons fly to Oz in December to escape from - there's little sign of it. The sky is a kingfisher blue, long, ironed-out clouds line the horizon of Sydney Harbour purely (it seems) to produce more interesting sunsets, and everything sparkles like mad in the morning - the result, according to Thackeray, of keeping a section of ocean cooped up in a bay.

Bondi Beach is lined with industrial skips full of litter, though many of the cardboard boxes seem to be empty wine crates. A stiff breeze whips across the wide sand, to where two blonde babes in shimmery PVC are being filmed with a brace of doltish lifeguards for some vapid sitcom. At Surf's Up, one of umpteen T-shirt shops on Campbell Parade, the owner, Jim Nicholson, stands in front of a two-bar electric fire ("Christ, it's bloody freezin' in heah") and inveighs against the changing local population. "Bondi used to be full of heroin and losers. People didn't like to admit they lived here. Then Fox studios opened down the road, and the place was crawling with film producers and movie stars. Now it's full of glamorous hangers- on, and your roach-infested two-bedroom apartment's worth half a mill." He scratched his head at the oddness of social evolution. "Believe me, mate - it used to be heroin, now it's cocaine, only the addicts are prettier."

Everyone in town talks about food, and a week-long acquaintance with Oz cuisine leaves you flabbergasted. They devour eccentric, shy things, such as blue-eyed cod and "mud crab" and sardines - the last a bizarrely popular choice. Otherwise, the menu is ablaze with invention and eccentricity ("steamed kumquat pudding"?) The only odd thing is the ubiquity of the letters BYO at every restaurant entrance, suggesting you Bring Your Own wine, though nobody can explain why.

The locals are friendly, if insulting. In the first three days, I've been called a worry wart, a dag (it means, since you ask, something that dangles from a sheep's bottom), a ratbag and a suspect woofter, and that was just by the womenfolk. Attempts at gallantry are best avoided. I told one 6ft beauty that she should visit Italy some time, where her every venture out of doors would be greeted by cries of "Che stupenda figura". "If I knew what that meant," she said crossly, "I'd slap yer face ..."

I spent the weekend up the east coast at Byron Bay, the most spectacular sandy beach I have ever scampered down, into freezing shallows and deafening waves. Everyone tries, with foolhardy intrepidity, to surf on these Homeric funnels, these terrifying Hokusai curls, these tidal monstrosities, these gigantic crashing spirals pointing to a watery grave. The Beach Boys wouldn't stand an earthly. Only the bravest, the toughest Oz musclemen could possibly survive them. To beguile an idle afternoon, I watched the surf heroes arrive on the beach: the fat roadie with long black ringlets and fussy posing pouch; the three laughing blond lummoxes, complete with abbreviated surfboards (had they shrunk in the cold water, along with everything else?), the

deliciously thin Japanese girl in skin-tight rubber suit, then the scrawny hippies with henna-ed hair and huge boots and sickly expressions ...

Hang on a second. What are they doing here? These, gentle reader, are the "ferals" (as everyone calls them, to rhyme with "perils") and Byron Bay has become their natural habitat. In 1974, there was an epic Age Of Aquarius gathering in the region, and thousands of middle-class hippies trekked up from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Many have stayed ever since. They camp on the hillside. They pick up dole cheques from the DSS office in a converted Masonic lodge. In consequence, Byron Bay is now the centre of the Australian back-packing universe. The main street is foggy with patchouli. You can buy runes here (they take Visa or MasterCard), investigate "Aura-Chakra" readings or sign up for a course in didgeridoo sonic therapy. It's Glastonbury meets Eastbourne. Given the number of beach-culture addicts who flock to the place, you get some odd conjunctions: the "Crystal Temple" of aids to spiritual enlightenment is located next door to the "Mad Dog" surfie emporium.

In the evening, drinking at "the Rails", aka the Railway Hotel, a packed crowd of hairies, whale-fanciers, surfers, crystal-gazers and apparently unbothered middle-class locals watched a Levellers-style band playing whiny Celtic jigs. I asked the owner, Tom Mooney, a burly businessman who owns half the town, why he didn't mind their presence. "Nah, we love the ferals," he growled. "They're our guarantee the town won't turn into every other bloody town. It's the franchise outfits we dread. Any time some guy from, I dunno, Benetton comes near the town, we bung a couple of ferals in the main street and see how fast they change their minds ... So there we have it: the New Age Traveller as commercial scarecrow.

Under the stern gaze of Queen Victoria, whose imperiously sulky statue looms over Macquarie Street, an atavistic impulse drew me through the doors of Hyde Park Barracks. This small, three-storey prison was the first colonial nick to the convicts (deported from England and Ireland) who were otherwise roaming the streets of Sydney like prairie dogs. Today you look at the compact little building and think: 600 men, crammed in here. But what was the impulse that drew me inside? I prowled around the rooms, inspecting the sad lives of convict children, and the silken ironies of convict-ship logs ("Some of the women require more patience than falleth to the lot of sinful humanity," observed the Matron's diary on the good ship David McIvor in 1858). At the top, one room was filled with about 80 hammocks slung like bodies from wooden beams, inches apart. Next door was a roll-call from the 1828 census, which named all 600-odd men in the barracks and where they came from. I counted three John Walshes: a Dublin butcher (age 19, seven years for robbery), a Limerick farm labourer (age 24, seven years for insurrection) and a soldier from Kent (age 45, seven years for "breach of trust"). Appalled to find the family escutcheon so comprehensively besmirched, I lay down on one of the hammocks. There was barely room for a small child. The room's concealed loudspeakers whispered the details of who'd been sentenced to 25 lashes; who'd been given 50 ... I closed my eyes. A dozen family spooks came crowding in on my jet-lagged brain, flesh-torn, stunted and miserable. I was out of there like a bat out of hell.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sauce Recruitment: Retail Planning Manager - Home Entertainment UK

salary equal to £40K pro-rata: Sauce Recruitment: Are you available to start a...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - London - up to £40,000

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Creative Front-End Developer - Claph...

Recruitment Genius: Product Quality Assurance Technologist - Hardline & Electric

£18000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The role in this successful eco...

Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: QA Tester - London - £30,000 QA Tes...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
 

If I were Prime Minister: I would create a government that actually reflects its people

Kaliya Franklin
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower