Aunty Pearl at the Astra

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Aunty Pearl at the Astra

Aunty Pearl back at the Astra

Aunty Pearl Martin doesn’t look her age and doesn’t see any reason to reveal it to the world. But what she will say if the question arises is: “I’m the oldest Maori lady in Bondi, love.” Sometimes Aunty Pearl agrees she must be a Maori elder if only because she’s old enough. Other times she’ll remember telling some people who wished her to play the part of a tribal elder: ‘I didn’t come to Australia to be a Maori – I came for the sport for my kids.’

“Which I did, love,” Pearl told me when we talked.

I had arranged to meet her after hearing that she worked as a maid at Bondi’s Hotel Astra in the early nineteen-eighties, which was a bit like being able to meet with a housemaid who worked at the Lexington Hotel in Chicago when Al Capone had a suite there. In short the Astra was then notorious.

Before she got to that part of the story, all in good time, Aunty Pearl recalled a little of her own eventful life. We had met at the small flat in Bondi she shared with her son, who works shifts on a maintenance crew and was asleep in the next room. Pearl spoke softly so as not to wake him, gasping for breath between words, as she explained that she had been an activist in the old days, back home in New Zealand.

“We sat against the government in Auckland for 500 days,” she said, wheezing a little before adding that her two brothers and some cousins had been among the instigators of the drawn-out occupation of traditional Maori land the government was handing over to a developer. The protest would draw attention to injustices against the Maori, but that came several years later: by then, Pearl had left New Zealand behind, landing on these shores a few days before Christmas, 1980, with her husband, four children and two suitcases.

When she said so I glanced around, half-expecting to glimpse what they had brought with them thirty-something years ago. The spotlessly clean living room looked as if nothing had ever been thrown away. Figurines, pictures, old cups, sports trophies and other treasured objects covered every surface. An exercise bike was tucked into a corner, next to shirts on hangers hooked on a shelf.

There were a few chairs and a card table spread with the bits of jewellery Pearl likes to make; clearing away shoeboxes that held more of her jewellery, she lowered herself cautiously into a chair. Her health is not what it was and she gets about these days with the aid of a walking stick but she has the ready laugh of a person full of life. The laughter resounded as she remembered starting work at the Astra in nineteen-eighty-one . She was doing shifts as a cleaner at the Bondi Beach Public School by then, but it was only a casual job; hearing that the Astra was advertising for kitchen staff, she was up there in a flash.

“I went there as a cook. I couldn’t cook for nuts, love,” Pearl confided. “I thought I’ll go and have a look anyway. They said ‘do you know how to cook?’ I said, ‘oh yeah’. Then Mrs Bullivant, the manager, came along. She was a little lady, but very elegant. She dressed beautifully. She came over to me and said ‘did you work in hotels before?’ I said ‘back home I did. I was doing the beds – a housemaid…’ She said ‘you can start up at the house’.
Anyway, I started there.”

The Astra at Bondi Beach.

The Astra at Bondi Beach.

The Hotel Astra on the corner of of Sir Thomas Mitchell Road and Campbell Parade overlooked the southern curve of Bondi Beach. A hotel called the Cliff House had risen on the very spot in eighteen-eighty, when there was a dance hall across the street but so little else that picnickers venturing to the beach let the horses that had been harnessed to their carts graze on the scrubby hill behind the hotel. In the nineteen-twenties, the Cliff House was replaced by the building that became the Astra.

Though grand in its day, towards the end the Astra was as renowned for the rock stars who played there as for the foils of heroin lined up on the window sills of the pub downstairs. Bondi itself was seedy. Dealing was rife and after muttering about it long enough, people from Sir Thomas Mitchell Road got together to write about life in a neighbourhood where the dealing went on even in the vestibules of their buildings.

The Sydney Morning Herald picked it up and the television people descended in droves to scuffle up syringes in nearby gardens. One local found a detective from Waverley waiting at her front gate, she told me not long ago. He asked her to come to the station to make a statement before he added: ‘you know people have ended up with concrete boots for saying what you said’.

Despite the mayhem in the bar of the Astra, the guests upstairs included elderly folk who lived in the hotel. Pearl would remember a distinguished gentleman they all called The Professor and a lady by the name of Mrs Bird with more beautiful hats than a hat shop. The old people had their own lounge. The musicians had a lounge downstairs “That’s where you’d see them snorting and having it, you know,” said Pearl.

The Astra was owned by Cyril Maloney who owned a string of hotels and doubtless didn’t know there were police acting as if they were in his pocket; the licensee Sylvia Bullivant had other things on her mind. So intent on her football team the Astra Knights that she coached the team herself, Mrs Bullivant might be seen rushing up and down the nearest sideline, blowing the whistle on Maori boys who could have picked her up like a toy.

At the Astra, meanwhile, Pearl had rapidly been initiated. “Well darlin’,” she said, “my first OD, I went into a room, there was this bloke, laid out on the floor, you know. The Astra Hotel was five floors. The top floor was a ballroom. I was on the third floor and I goes running down the stairs to the office…” Pearl imitated herself, wailing as if pursued by banshees. “I goes screaming, ‘oooooooh someone’s dead’. I didn’t know what was going on. The office lady says to me, ‘never mind Pearl, don’t worry, Pearl.’

“Then these two people come up with a stretcher and that. He wasn’t dead. He was just OD’d, love. But darling, by the time I left the Astra Hotel, you know what I used to do – kick them under the bed and carry on workin’. ‘Well off you go under there, mate, while I fix up this room’.”

The pub closed down a few years later, after the local council, spurred by residents, approached the Licensing Board and Mr Maloney declared he would turn the building into aged care apartments. Pearl was there to the end, which came in the mid-eighties.

By then the New Zealanders streaming into Bondi since the nineteen-seventies were streaming out again, because rents were rising out of their reach. For a time squatters magisterially calling themseves the Maori Self-Help Housing Group occupied a big derelict building on Gould Street, a block from the beach. Soon they, too, were gone.

Pearl nearly suffered the same fate. The building where she lived last year was being redeveloped: she and her son had to move from a small flat to a smaller one. With everything still in boxes there, Pearl and I met the other day at a café at the Junction, before heading towards Bondi Beach to take a look at the Astra.

Though she lived a short bus ride away, she hadn’t seen it in years. The building looked as she remembered it, she said. It was when she was home again, resting a bit after the outing, she told me later, that she became emotional, thinking about the place in the old days, with Mrs Bird and her hats and Mrs Bullivant, looking after the boys from INXS and Hunters and Collectors. “I’ve still got a t-shirt that belongs to one of them,” she said. There was a silence. I pictured her in her little flat, looking around at all the boxes. “Somewhere,” she said.

Aunty Pearl at a cafe at Bondi Junction.

Aunty Pearl at a cafe for the second time in her long life.

New Year’s Eve with men in masks and the-then Mr Dogg

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Knife Party, New Year’s Eve, Bondi Beach. Photo courtesy of Shorething

Fair warning: this post has enough swear words in it to make your hair curl.

I don’t look like the sort of person likely to spend New Year’s Eve having my eardrums drilled by the band Knife Party’s electronic pounding, but as that’s what I was doing, a mere twenty-four days ago, I held a notebook in front of me like a shield. It was probably unnecessary. Everyone else at Shorething, the New Year’s Eve spectacular at Bondi Beach, was dancing. They were there to have the time of their lives. I was there to report on the action.

I had waded into the seething centre of a crowd of ten thousand sweating, sculpted bodies to look around when a bare-chested boy with a beatific grin pirouetted like Rudolf Nureyev to plant a kiss on my cheek. I put it down to the eccies. I was relieved he didn’t start stroking me as if I was a puppy, which happened another time I was around people who’d been gobbling ecstasy.

That was at a time electronic dance music was fractionally more melodious than it is now. It has to be said a symphony of jack hammers would have been fractionally more melodious than Knife Party’s hit “Internet Friends”, the song being blasted over the loudspeakers at that moment.

Intent on writing down the refrain “You blocked me on Facebook and now you’re going to die” I looked up to find my improbable presence had become a diversion.

Several young men had turned their backs to the stage to dance in front of me. Others had naturally turned to watch. The dazzling laser show lit up the Bondi sky, but little of the stage could be seen from the centre of the crowd. That left people making their own fun, as we used to say in the olden days before the lyrics of songs were dubbed by DJs prancing about the stage in masks, though so few of us could see them.

It was my second New Year’s Eve in a row at Shorething, thanks to the promoter Brandon Saul, an amiable rumpled character, who also puts on Sydney’s Vivid Live festival. I had first gone to talk to him about the event at Bondi Beach the year before because there was controversy about it. Snoop Dogg was the star of that show. He has since renamed himself Snoop Lion but he was still Snoop Dogg then.

Snoop Dogg at Bondi, courtesy of Shorething

Not all the locals had welcomed Mr Dogg, as one called him. They seemed to think that an entertainer who had boasted of making a living as a pimp and gone in and out of jail presented an image that did not add shine to Bondi’s lustre. Brandon Saul told me – and anyone else who would listen – that Snoop’s gangsta rapper image was part of his act. With that in mind, I went to see the-then Mr Dogg.

I was closer to the action on stage that night, pressed against the security rail above the mosh pit, hour after flaming hour. A glinting SUV finally dropped Snoop and his entourage off on the sand behind the stage, but it took another half hour of interminable mounting excitement before he made it to the stage. He wore sunnies and black trackies with a white stripe. On the hand that kept straying towards his crotch (but never quite getting there) was a silvery rock the size of Gibraltar.

It took me a moment to realise that you couldn’t pick his voice out of the wall of sound – all you could really hear was the one word repeated over and over. Mothafucka, boom, motherfucka boom boom.

Up behind him him were video images of the sort of graffiti you saw on the New York subway before they got the anti-graffiti covering. I lived in New York in the 1980s when you also saw black kids – buskers – rapping on street corners. I guess they enunciated the word mothafucka as well. It seems old hat, I said to the young woman standing next to me at the barrier. “It is old hat,” she said firmly.

It was like seeing a facsimile of the original, blurred in some parts and heightened in others, as if the lack of authenticity had been half-concealed by making it more outrageous. The dancers, big strong girls with big strong thighs, were shaking their booty so hard you worried they would be hurt. They were earning their living by arching themselves almost double, going through the motions as the scrawny rapper sang “I want to fuck you” and the audience sang along.

It was a novel experience. I had never before heard twelve thousand people singing “I want to fuck you, fuck you”. I wasn’t shocked by the language – I throw expletives around more than most people. What shocked me was the sudden realisation that all but the rawest innocents knew the show was cynical and empty, and didn’t mind. What they were celebrating was Snoop Dogg’s celebrity, not his music. I dare say that wasn’t news to anyone but myself.

But that wasn’t all I learned the first time my senior’s card and me went to Shorething. I was in the prime position to see the stage, as I said. I hadn’t realised that unless I allowed myself to be carried out over their heads by the St John’s Ambulance people or the security guards, I was trapped until the concert ended.

I never went anywhere near the stage this time. I liked the idea I could escape, but there was no reason to. The people crowded together in their thousands to dance on the grass behind the beach were so mellow they said sorry if they bumped into you by mistake. Their good humour was astonishing. The eccies helped, of course. So did the long lines at the bars. People probably sobered up again as they made their way from one end to the other. And they seemed determined to find things to celebrate.

“You get a dollar if you’ve kept the glass when you go back to the bar, and I’ve got seven!” a young woman in shorts and high heels told me happily, counting them again to be sure, as her friends loudly counted down the last few seconds to midnight, mobile phones on the ready. Before the new year was a minute old, they were on their phones, talking about it.

Snoop Dogg live at Bondi, courtesy of Shorething