by Elisabeth Wynhausen
I had heard all about Mr Bondi long before we sat down to talk. People aware I was writing about Bondi said if there was one man I must meet it was him. When someone used his given name at last, I realised that Mr Bondi and I had been acquainted all along. Then again, Bill Symonds OAM is acquainted with half the people around Bondi. He has been part of the place so long no-one can remember it without him.
I first met Bill one election day handing out how-to-vote leaflets with such enthusiasm even people more likely to self-combust than vote Labor smiled and took a leaflet. I suppose he was in his early seventies then, with strong features set in a sun-burned face that wouldn’t change much from one decade to the next. Until he was well into his eighties, Bill was to be found every election at the entrance to Bondi Beach Public School, a short walk from where he was born, in a street in South Bondi already squared away with tin-roofed cottages and tile-roofed bungalows.
- Bill and Curly were born in the hospital then in Rickard Avenue, Bondi
Trams had run down Bondi Road to the south end of the beach since the previous century, depositing families large enough to field a cricket team, the men carrying clinking picnic baskets weighed down by the family china, as they crossed the road to the beach. The terminus was at the very spot where Bill and his identical twin, Curly, ducked over the road as they ran down to the beach, trying to keep their feet in the air so the boiling hot tar didn’t stick. They would have been three or four years old.
- Looking like butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths
- Barefoot, hungry and as happy as could be.
“Curly and I, we spent most of our time down the beach,’’ Bill told me one day. “We couldn’t swim. How the hell we didn’t drown’s got me beaten. I don’t know if you know, but everybody calls me ‘Yooka’. What we used to do, we used to go down the rocks and see the fishermen, and we were that tiny we’d say ‘you got any yooks, Mister?’ because we couldn’t say hook.’’
Rather than waiting for the next election, I had met Bill at his home, in an apartment block on one of the streets stretched along of the headland beyond the northern end of Bondi Beach. The flat has felt a little empty since his beloved wife, Joan, died late last year, but Bill still sits, as he liked to do, looking out over the beach to the shimmer of light on the sea, sometimes seeing himself and Curly as children again, sometimes pausing over another image from a lifetime ago.
He would never forget the sight, as people in their hundreds, then thousands, streamed down Bondi Road on foot. It was the 1930s. The newspapers reported that in the midst of the Great Depression, with one in three people unemployed and many destitute, a hundred thousand people would sometimes spend the day at Bondi Beach, which cost them nothing. They’d walk from Rose Bay and Paddington,” said Bill, shaking his head at the recollection. The privation of those years was like a shadow memory colouring everything that happened to him in years to come. His experiences made him the instinctive progressive he remains to this day.
I had asked him about his life and he began at the beginning. “My dad was Jewish and married out. The family never forgave him so he finished up, he was a drunk. He drank himself to death,” he said, matter-of-factly. “He was thirty-three. He left six kids. The eldest was nine, the youngest was eighteen months.”
Bill doesn’t remember going hungry though there were days all there was to eat was bread and dripping. His mother urged the children to get a good education but Curly and Bill couldn’t be bothered with it and left technical school at the age of fifteen to go to work for John McGrath Motors in Paddington. Bill became a spray painter, Curly a mechanic. And Curly, too, would be awarded the Order of Australia in later life.
When Bill walked up the street on the way home from work he’d see the same faces he had seen all his life. But he’d also see people whose very presence flagged the war to come. The first wave of immigrants to imprint themselves on Bondi were the Jews who fled from Germany in the nineteen-thirties and washed up here. They walked to the synagogue in Bondi wearing overcoats, even in summer. Bill would picture those white-faced refugees in their dark overcoats long afterwards if asked how Bondi had changed and progressed. At the time, of course, he was intent on the momentous events in his own life.
“Pearl Harbour was bombed on the 7th of December, 1941. I enlisted two days later. I was nineteen.” Curly was already serving king and country, the one way to get an operation he needed. “We finished up together, anyway, down the South Coast.” Their unit was about to be posted to Malaya when Singapore fell. “I was very lucky in the army,” Bill said. Calling it luck could be a sign of the indomitable spirit people would still notice as handed out his leaflets, years later.
- Bill in uniform in George Street, Sydney, 1942
Their unit was doing exercises at the steelworks at Port Kembla when Bill came under friendly fire. He and Curly had climbed to the top of a water tower. One of the soldiers blasting away from below hadn’t checked his weapon. With his elbow shot to pieces and a big hole in his back, Bill looked like a goner by the time he had been brought down and taken to the nearest aid station. “The doctor rolled me over and said to the other blokes, ‘this bloke will be dead before the day’s out. Don’t worry about taking him to the army hospital, take him straight to Wollongong.’ That was lucky, too.”
Seriously injured steelworkers were regularly carted off to Wollongong Hospital. “I’m laying in bed, blood everywhere.The matron walked up, looked at me and said, ‘oh I’ll fix him’. She got a great big piece of cotton wool, covered it in sulfa , pushed it in me back and got a big bandage and wrapped it around me, to stop the bleeding and stop infection, so that saved me life . They pushed me arm back into place and got sticking plaster and held it in position.’’ He was soon sent to Darwin where Curly had been posted. The bullet in the elbow had left his arm damaged – as it would be for life. “They just put me down as B class and told me I’d be all right.”
He was married by the time the war ended. That marriage didn’t take but it was for life, the second time around. He and Joan spent more than fifty good years together, raising four daughters and a son while giving so much of themselves to the clubs and committees that underpin a community they came to embody the spirit of the place. The former Labor mayor John Wakefield, no slouch himself, once said Bill and Joan Symonds were his local heroes for all they did for the people of Bondi.
Bill isn’t a reflective man. But if he happens to mull over all he has seen and done in his long life the distant past may rise up like something that happened yesterday. He looks past buildings where flats change hands for more money than people used to earn in a lifetime, remembering there were only a few weatherboard houses along the ridge when he and Curly first ran up and down the beach, barefooted and ragged, hungry and as happy as could be.
- At the south end of Bondi Beach in the ’30s
- Bill and Curly just before they turned 90 in August 2012