Hot ham and pudding at the Three Steps

Welcome to the Three Steps Cafe

Welcome to the Three Steps Cafe

If I were mayor handing out awards to places and people that hold the community together, one of the first would go to the Three Steps on Bondi Road, a local institution that calls itself a café but is rightly pictured as a retro diner, with plastic sauce bottles on yellow laminex tables and about a hundred varieties of eggs and bacon, ham, sausages, burgers, steak and chips.

I’d been there now and then, after noticing that the Three Steps was a haven for taxidrivers, at least in the days there was a taxi garage over the road. Though the garage was demolished years ago, leaving nothing but a weed-strewn lot, the Three Steps is still a home away from home for the travellers, tradesmen and taxidrivers who turn up at all hours, not only for the heaped plates of comfort food, old-fashioned ambience and old school prices, but for the warmth of human company, as distinct as the steam rising from the espresso machine.

Open since the nineteen-sixties, the Three Steps has been owned for almost a quarter-century by Mehmet Ozer, a short, lively, middle-aged man with a twinkle in his eye and a kindness so boundless that regular customers who’ve known him a long time will tell you about the number of down-and-outs he gives a feed.

Mehmet Ozer at the Three Steps

Mehmet Ozer at the Three Steps

Something of the same effusive spirit pervades his café with its nondescript exterior and its flapping green awnings; along with its bestseller bacon and egg rolls for $4.90, burgers with poetic names like El Torro and Zingara, and kebabs worth a poem on their own, the Three Steps offers a refuge from the anonymity and indifference of life in a big city.

When I hung out there myself, I met customers who go in for a chat whether they’ve eaten or not. Rekah Balendran came from London six months ago to work for an investment bank, no sooner moving to Bondi with friends than she found herself irresistibly drawn back to the congenial atmosphere of the Three Steps. “No matter what time it is, I’ll stop and have a conversation. Even if it’s midnight. Sometimes I’ll sit half an hour talking to them,” Rekah told me one evening, shortly before a commotion erupted out on Bondi Road.

The young woman exuberantly abusing her boyfriend at the top of her voice seemed to have been celebrating St Patrick’s Day in advance of the occasion. Coming to a sudden halt in front of the café, she aimed one last “fecking eejit” in her feller’s direction before turning to beam at Mahmoud Aktogan, the night shift man at the Three Steps since he arrived in Sydney – and Bondi – seventeen years ago.

Mahmoud Aktogan on the night shift

Mahmoud Aktogan on the night shift

Mahmoud doesn’t just remember customers’ names, he remembers what they usually order. He knew without being told that the woman had her mind set on a bread roll with bacon, sausage, egg, cheese, mushrooms, ham, hash browns, pudding and onion, a speciality of the house called an Irish roll. “No mushroom, no onion,” he added serenely, even before she could remind him of the way she liked it. It was ten at night. The Three Steps would be open another two hours, and re-open before six in the morning.

Bondi has such an oversupply of eateries some neighbourhoods are beset by cafes, restaurants and bars, but the Three Steps is one of the last, if not the last joint open all hours for the working people who start early or finish late. “Taxidrivers kick the door if we’re not open right on time,” Mehmet Ozer tells me with a laugh one day, availing himself of the opportunity to add that they stay open even if it’s quiet. “We’re always here for our customers,” he said. I had already noticed he wasn’t one to let a marketing opportunity go to waste. The explanation was not long in coming.

Mehmet grew up in Turkey, and was in marketing as a young man, as the colourful names of some of his dishes attest. But as luck would have it, on landing in Sydney at the age of twenty-four, he started working for a man with a chain of kebab shops, who taught him to cook, passing on the all-important secret of the sauce in which the kebab meat is marinated before it is cooked to order.

Before long, Mehmet had bought the Three Steps, “slowly, slowly” expanding into the house behind the original grill, managing to retain the unreconstructed décor of an old greasy spoon, with garish pictures of hamburgers and chips on the wall-sized menus. But the Three Steps is a place apart. Twelve people work there. Six of them, including Mehmet and his brother, their nephew Sammy and his brother, and Mahmoud Aktogan, a one-time high school teacher, come from the same village in south-eastern Turkey where the population is predominantly Kurdish.

Tempting as it was to imagine the Three Steps as a little bit of Kurdistan down the road from Bondi Junction, it was the wrong image altogether. The diner exemplifies multiculturalism at its inclusive best. I was still sitting talking to Mehmet when his friend, the rabbi, appeared in the distinctive broad-brimmed black hat worn by the ultra-Orthodox. But the religious Jews who live in the neighbourhood only eat at kosher places.

Mehmet and his friend, the rabbi

Mehmet and his friend, the rabbi

The Three Steps has been adopted instead by the latest arrivals – the Irish transplants who have clustered in the surrounding streets – which is why you’ll find posters for Barry’s Tea, Club Soda and “McDonnells: Ireland’s No 1 curry sauce” hung over the railings, and why I found it full of people wearing green last Sunday.

“This is an Irish place,” said Deidre Hunt, who had ordered an Irish breakfast (scrambled eggs, hash browns, hot ham, mushrooms and pudding), a taste of home after her four years in Bondi. Bound for the St Patrick’s Day march in the city, like many customers that morning, she made it clear that having breakfast beforehand at the Three Steps had become part of the tradition.

Mehmet was as busy as everyone else at work that day, but he wanted to check he hadn’t let one more marketing opportunity slip by. He paused by my table a moment: “Can we say the Three Steps has something to offer everyone?

“And don’t forget we have the best kebabs in Australia,” he added, before hurrying off with another armload of dirty dishes.

Deidre Hunt, St Patrick's Day

Deidre Hunt and Aidan Bockley, St Patrick’s Day

Aine Bourke, a long way from Tipperary

Aine Bourke, a long way from Tipperary

Friends from Ireland celebrate St Patrick's Day at the Three Steps

From left to r ight: Linda Sullivan, Sam Stephenson, Jenny Macdonald, Ellen Hanrahan, Neil Burgess, James O’Connor and the forgetful photographer, St Patrick’s Day

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.

Gertrude, Alice and Jane

By Elisabeth Wynhausen

Gertrude and Alice cafe bookstore

Welcome to Gertrude and Alice

There are too many cafes on Hall Street, Bondi, but there is one we couldn’t possibly do without. Not just the locals, either. The Gertrude and Alice Café Bookstore has so ardent a following some people cross Sydney in lumbering buses to get there. Halfway up Hall Street, behind a modest shopfront with ancient school desks, battered benches and a bedraggled bookcase parked outside, Gertrude and Alice seems to exist in a realm all its own, as if sequestered from the everyday world.

Past the pocket-size kitchen and the cash register is the first of three cosy rooms with more old benches and overflowing bookshelves from the floor to the ceiling. There are books everywhere, of course. Books are piled in corners. Books are arranged upright on the tables and straggle along the floor against the shelves. Books have tumbled into a little heap onto the burnt orange velvet sofa, the best seat in the house.

If you pause to pick out a handful for yourself before settling down with your Moroccan mint tea and fruit loaf, the sense of amplitude in the presence of twenty-five thousand books is infinitely multiplied by the serendipity of second-hand bookshops. Gertrude and Alice now stocks new books as well, but tucks them in together with all the rest, taking little away from the thrill of picking up books you didn’t even know you were looking for until you found them.

Jane Turner at Gertrude and Alice

Jane Turner at Gertrude and Alice

I’ve been dropping in since the place opened twelve years ago but it wasn’t until I sat down to talk with Jane Turner, who owns Gertrude and Alice, that I learned that the enticing muddle of books piled here and books piled there is contrived to appeal to customers. Confronted with shelves that are too tidy, “they won’t touch them,” Jane told me, the other day, confessing that she had agonised about the decision to supplement the second-hand books with new ones, like the $9.95 Penguin classics that mean no-one need ever again search her shelves high and low for a hard-to-find copy of Kerouac’s “On the Road”.

Bookshelves at Gertrude and Alice

Oh good, the shelves aren’t too tidy.

Boxes after box of the new books turned up last October. “I thought what have I done” said Jane, a fresh-faced, forthright woman of fifty often to be seen in Gertrude and Alice sitting on an upturned milk crate and frowning in concentration, because she is worrying about the business, while wondering where to fit the books in the box at her feet.

Events proved her right, however. It was a bumper Christmas. Whatever the trials of the book trade, in fact, Gertrude and Alice is usually packed out, as it has been almost since the opening, in premises further down the street. Jane, a Bondi local who had spent many years as a bookseller, had run into author Katerina Cosgrove, who had worked in cafes to support herself while writing.

Only briefly a partner in the business they conjured up between them (for she would soon be writing fulltime), Katerina has said they chose the name Gertrude and Alice because they were inspired by accounts of the cultural and literary life of Paris in the days Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas presided over one of the most famous salons in that city.

From the first Gertrude and Alice so completely filled the niche it had created that it was difficult to imagine the neighbourhood without it. Good food and good books combine two of the great pleasures of life and the new café bookstore combined them with such panache it promptly became a hip place to hang out.

Women reading at Gertrude and Alice

A hip place to hang out – and read.

The buzz about Gertrude and Alice never died down. But the original premises were larger by far. Writers who had worked on their manuscripts at one of the scarred tables came back there to launch their books. There were local music nights once a week. Then disaster struck. The building was to be redeveloped. In 2006 Jane was given notice. For a time it looked as if she would be forced to close. Shortly before the death knell, much to our relief, she found premises over the road from the Hakoah Club, a little further up the street, and fitted in what bookshelves she could, before the place filled up again.

People seem to like little better than sitting surrounded by books, whether or not they buy them. The question is if they will buy enough of them to ensure the future of this much loved local institution.

Tucked into the sofa the other day, taking cover behind a book boldly subtitled “The Sequel to Les Miserables” (though drafted a hundred and sixteen years after Victor Hugo breathed his last), I took stock. A woman read to a little girl who might have been five years old. A tall, gaunt, almost cadaverous man with furrowed cheeks sat bent over his book in seeming absorption as the woman seated across the table from him gave her companion strenous advice about his love life. No books were involved. The other customers I could see were busy with their mobiles and laptops.

Girls look at mobile phone at Gertrude and Alice

The seductive call of the mobile, Gertrude and Alice

All had had something to eat or drink, of course. Though the menu was more extensive in the other premises, where there was more space to cook, it is impossible not to marvel at the culinary feats the Gertrude and Alice staff carry off in a space barely large enough to swing a saucepan. Indeed the café has sustained the rest of the business when times are tough, and times have seldom been tougher for people in the book trade than they were last year, when the other bookshop in Hall Street closed down.

But Jane isn’t one to give up. She secured an alcohol licence and brought in the new books. Long an active participant in the neighbourhood’s cultural life, she went one step further, and became a sponsor of ‘The Nib’ Waverley Library Award for Literature.

Outside Gertrude and Alice one day, she turned to look across the street. What used to be the Hakoah Club is buried under a huge building still hidden behind hoardings. Construction of the eight-story apartment complex has been a nightmare for those who live or work close by; now they’re worrying what will happen the building is finished and people are moving in. Not Jane Turner, who had heard there would be a hundred and thirty-two serviced apartments in the complex.

Briefly picturing the hundreds of people emerging from the building to check out the café bookstore on the other side of the street, she gave the ghost of a grin. “It might be our salvation,” she said.

Postscript: But if I’ve persuaded you to go and pick up some books while sampling something delicious, think twice about going today. There’s only a barista there. Jane has taken the staff for a short vacation in the country to thank them for all their hard work over Christmas. They’ll be back tomorrow.

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.

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