500 square metres of Bondi

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Luke Wilson at Bondi Beach.

Luke Wilson at Bondi Beach last Friday.

There is often a moment in people’s lives they look back on later on, wondering if everything fell into place for them at that instant. For Luke Wilson that moment came the day before his fifteenth birthday. He was walking down Campbell Parade, Bondi Beach, on his way home from a swimming carnival, when he noticed a man pulling a surfboard from a car and stood staring. The instant he saw the board’s design, Luke bolted over.

“That’s my board,” he said, grabbing it to carry it into the surf shop, the Bondi Surf Co. He hadn’t imagined it. It was his board – the first custom-made board he would own. He’d had cheap polystyrene boards before but this was a proper fibreglass surfboard.

Twenty-one years later, Luke was in the Bondi Surf Co., perched on a bench under a rack of skateboards, telling the story. He was there because he has worked in the shop ever since and was at work that day.

Inevitably the shop changed with the times. The original Bondi Surf Co was little further up Campbell Parade and sold only boards and wetsuits rather than the branded teeshirts, boardshorts, bikinis, baby rashies and hoodies considered essential to the business now. What Luke remembers from the days he first worked there is that there was always a mob of surfers hanging around. It had been like that since the shop opened, when it was known as the Hole in the Wall. “Everyone hung out there,” he said. “They used to leave their boards in the shop, wetsuits everywhere. It was a proper hangout. That’s long gone…”

The thought made him nostalgic. “Back in the day we had everything,” he said, reminded that he and a couple of mates shared a three-bedroom flat, with a sea view, for $300 a week. They were in an old building occupied by swarms of surfers, a two minute walk from the beach. The place was emptied out four or five years ago after the local council ordered the owners to install a few mod cons like fire exits and back stairs.

Luke surfing some years ago

Luke, back in the day.

Luke thought of it as the end of an era that stretched from the working class Bondi of his childhood to the days half the surfers he used to know had gone because Bondi was beyond their means.

And yet for all the dizzying changes he sees around him, he manages to live his life as if nothing much has changed. In fact you could set your clock by him – and probably your compass – because his trajectory through space and time is as steady and reassuring as the ebb and flow of the tides.

Except when he goes fishing far out to sea with a mate who owns a boat, he stays within an area as neatly defined as it would have been had he lived in a little village a long, long time ago.

He goes from the flat on Hall Street he shares with his brother, Shane, to the brick wall at the south end of Bondi Beach, where he sits watching the world go by until it is time to cross Campbell Parade to report in for work. Nine hours later he covers the half-block to Ravesi’s, the bar on the next corner, grabs a beer and then another, orders something to eat and parks himself at his usual table, by the window overlooking Hall Street. It is a straight line up the street to his flat.

Luke after work at Ravesi's

Luke’s table.

The routine is as unvarying as the route. He likes it that way. The very predictability of the pattern is how Luke singles himself out. Other people like veering off the beaten track once in a while. Not him. But the fact that he has anchored himself to his little patch makes it all the more noticeable that he is part of the bedrock of Bondi, the vital substratum often forgotten in all the froth and bubble about the place.

There is something solitary about him and yet if he is at Ravesi’s or on the wall at the south end of the beach, with his headphones on and his cup of tea beside him, no more than a minute or two will pass before the first of a dozen or more people pause to greet him.

At the beach, first thing in the morning, young surfers often stop by to ask if he happened to notice what they were doing right or wrong “You’ve got to encourage them,” he said when I mentioned it, recalling he once told me he was five when he taught himself to surf, on an old foam surfboard he and his brother had dug up somewhere.

Luke, aged five, borrows a board

Luke borrows a board

Luke and his brother

Luke (on the left) and his brother Shane with a board each at last

They weren’t from the sort of family that could afford to buy them things. They were condemned to cheap polystyrene boards – and boards they bought second-hand – until the great day Luke ordered his custom-made board with money he had earned working part-time. He still has photographs of it. “I drew all over it. I’ve been doing that 20 years. Now it’s trendy to draw on your board,” he said, waiting to have it recorded that he was ahead of the trend, before he unfolded himself from the bench under the skateboards. His break was over. It was time to get back to work.

Luke Wilson at work

Luke Wilson at the Bondi Surf Co.

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

Mr Bondi

by Elisabeth Wynhausen

Bill Symonds last week Photo:Pat Fiske

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