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FM, FM’s Mum and I went to the Museum of Sydney today to check out Louise Hawson’s photo exhibition –  52 suburbs of Sydney.   It’s highly recommended.  You should go if you can.

I was amazed to learn that there are currently 638 suburbs in Sydney.  Louise visited a fairly wide-ranging selection – one each week for a year.  She said that she took photographs for three days, spent another two working on them and then grouping them into related pairs.   Six days a week for a whole year.  And of course, she’s just scraped the surface.  She asks the rhetorical question “Just where is the suburb called ‘Canoelands’ and what might the good people of that suburb do ?”  Damned good question.

It brought home to me how amazingly culturally diverse our city  of many tribes has become – from the Anglo white bread village of my youth to quietly (with the exception of the occasional Cronulla race riot) morph into something unrecognisable as a suburb of  the middle of last century .  Dramatic change – in a good way.

Thinking that a city of four and a half million people that grows (apparently) at the rate of 1,000 people per week might in any way be comprehensible at a glance is clearly a big mistake on my part.  Louise’s exhibition is a wonderful study of colour, contrast, character and texture and her use of diptychs comparing and contrasting time and place and cultural reference is brilliant.

So – it’s a fascinating study, which BTW leads into two other really important small exhibitions.  First was a history of WWI German internment camps in NSW – Berrima Gaol, Holdsworthy and Trial Bay camps.

Holdsworth Internment Camp about 1915 (Government documents of the time refer to it as a "concentration" camp)

This is an extraordinary story about how about 7,000 people of German origin – even Australian citizens were locked up – some for six months after the WWI armistice.  Many were deported back to a devastated Germany.  These clearly dangerous and criminal krauts included none other than Herr Resche (whose Australian born sons were running his breweries while he was interred, and Australia’s only specialist orthopaedic surgeon of the day.  There was a class system where the wealthier German Australians got a better gig in a northern beach-side encampment.  And in addition the camps were run on a law of the jungle system where the “Black HandGang” at Holdsworthy terrorised other inmates and extorted and victimised them for gain – until remaining members of the crew of the Emden were interred with them, formed the “White Hand Gang”, and beat the crap out of the “Black Hand Gang”.  These beatings included throwing victims (deserving and otherwise, apparently) amongst the barbed wire while the guards turned a blind eye.

It makes it easier to understand the obscene way that Australians of many different ethnic backgrounds are so easily able to turn a blind eye to the plight of refugees – we’ve had form.

Then we went into an adjacent exhibition on housing in Australia.  There he was – the beaming visage of famous Viennese refugee architect, Harry Seidler –surrounded by images of his wonderful creations – Rose Seidler House (1950).

BTW Rose Seidler House is the venue for  the annual 1950’s fair at Wahroonga on August 16.  Don’t miss it hep cats and cool kitties.


Seidler’s  MLC Centre remains one of the CBD’s iconic buildings.

Construction started in 1960 (completely obliterating the delightfully bohemian Rowe Street) and was completed in 1967.  MLC Centre was for a very long time the tallest building in Australia at sixty something stories.  It was my workplace for five years in the middle 1980s.  The view from level 41 was spectacular.  The lifts were something less than spectacular and offered a service reminiscent of Sydney’s public transport systems.

And they also had pictures of the arsehole of Sydney Harbour landscape – Seidler’s Blues Point Tower.  We used to live across the harbour in Birchgrove and had to look at this eyesore every day.  I used to fantasise about starting a fund to buy all the units in there and pull the bastard building down – it is so ugly.  I gather that the alternative strategy is to save up, buy one of the tightly-held / rarely-sold units and look outwards.

But then the exhibition’s images looped back to another form of Australian ugliness – and perhaps the definition in my view of a total lack of charity and uncaring mongrel behaviour.

This image – reproduced without all the palaver that the State Library insists is necessary to have permission to republish, is a picture of William Roberts and his family – evicted from their home in Redfern in 1934.  William Roberts was an original Anzac.  And this is how he was treated.

My Mom used to tell me stories about the depression.  Her Intermediate certificate is dated 1939.  She got an A in History.  She said that neighbours used to help evicted families by waiting until the bailiffs had left and then break into the house again to let the evicted people back in.  If a landlord was such a bastard as to want to try it again, he would risk having the place burnt down – with a not-surprising lack of witnesses.  Not helpful for William, but not a bad way to discourage a lack of landlordly compassion.  My Dad used to tell me about how a kid with a pair of shoes to wear to school was the mark of a wealthy family.  And he also told me how the poorer kids used to beg apple cores from the richer kids because they were so hungry.

So while it is fashionable to wax on lyrical and wallow in the “Tradition of ANZAC”, it should not be forgotten about how Australia has a well-developed cultural capacity to act like total bastards towards those less fortunate in our midst.  Can’t accuse us of playing favourites, though.  We mistreated both ANZACS and Australian citizens of German descent.  We seem to have at least a hundred years’ practice at being bastards.  Probably twice that, really.

This visit to the Museum of Sydney (that likes to call itself the MOS for short) is a very worthwhile experience – this time, especially so.  It shows us at our best, culturally diverse, colourful, tolerant and inclusive, and also reminds us of how bad we can truly be if we try really hard.