Wednesday, 27 June 2012

A really nice place...

Do you want to know a secret?  Yes?
I thought so.
Well dear readers, as that great luminary Leonard Cohen once said, "I'm not the sort of chap who would keep it to himself and you are just the people I want to tell it to."
For twenty eight years, Mrs Filius (filia Flandrie) and myself lived in a wonderful suburban community about 25 kilometres from Sydney's city centre.  Here, we watched our children pass from infants, on to primary then high school and out into the world.  We shared scout camps and brownie barbecues; cheered them at school concerts and Anzac Day marches; stood on the sidelines at netball and soccer games and did all those perfect things that make weekends in the urban stretch of a large city what they are.  
We might notice, when we travelled on family holidays to Port Macquarie, Nelson Bay and points further north, as we left the freeway near Hexham and crossed the old lift bridge spanning the Hunter River, the sign that pointed to the city of Newcastle.  We never thought for a second of detouring in that direction.  Why would we? Everyone knew Newcastle was a dull industrial steel and coal city - what could possibly be of interest to us there?
What a real working harbour looks like - sadly you won't see this in Sydney Harbour any more
Every so often I might encounter a displaced Novocastrian who would refer to his home in glowing terms and we sophisticated folk from our wonderful harbour city would roll our eyes in resignation at this endearing but misguided loyalty.  My former boss at Veolia, where the leadership team comprises a decent share of the Hunter diaspora, continues to talk of his place of origin as "the Centre of the Universe" - you would disagree with him at your peril.
This is an aside I know, but do you want to know how many times I have driven across the Sydney Harbour Bridge?  I'm going to tell you anyway.  By my estimate, it is over 50,000 times.  That's on the basis of twice a day, five working days a week for about twenty five years plus a fudge factor to take into account my two years as a taxi driver and student during my late twenties.  I reckon it's about a quarter of a million dollars in bridge tolls at today's rates.  I'm not going to mention the Harbour Tunnel, the Eastern Distributor, the Lane Cove Tunnel and the other pieces of infrastructure which extract a fee for the privilege of parking on them each day while trying to get from one part of town to the other.  To complain of this would be churlish.
So this is where the revelation begins, friends.  Just over a year ago, I was considering my future options - retiring from full time work, doing a little part time consulting, doing some pro bono work, improving the golf handicap, doing a little writing; you know, all those things we plan while we're still young.  Unexpectedly an opportunity to consider moving from Sydney came our way.  What followed was a series of conversations with some nice people. Within days I had been offered a job, accepted it, and before I could say Jennifer Hawkins, we were making plans to relocate.  
Prior to our twenty eight year stopover in Sydney, we had lived like gypsies: three years here, three years there, a few years travelling around the world. Then along came the family and the Sydney stopover as we watched them grow.  Now it was again time for a change.  We packed everything we needed; two pantechnicons replacing the Sunbeam Imp used half a lifetime ago when we moved into our first home.  After a few tears, and a last look around we drove north for two hours, with not much idea of what the next few years had in store. 
The thing is, we really had no idea at all what to expect - and that is what has made it so splendid.  I don't want this story to turn into a travel brochure for Newcastle, but I have to spill the beans on this.  Where else in this great country, could we live five minutes walk from the beach, five minutes walk to coffee shops, bars and eateries and five minutes walk to the foreshore of a working harbour.  A harbour by the way which is exporting over 100 million tonnes of coal every year in an urban region employing over 300,000 people which is about 100,000 more than it did ten years ago, when it was that dull steel manufacturing city I referred to earlier in this piece.  But that is not to say we're living in the sticks, despite what those eye-rolling, sophisticated chai-latte sipping folk living down the other end of the F3 might think. 
A couple of weeks ago I needed a bank cheque.  I called the Newcastle office of my bank wanting to make sure that I could organise well in advance what was needed. I was, after all from a part of the world where I had become accustomed to spending an eternity waiting in line only to find I was talking to the wrong department.  
"Come along", said the voice at the end of the phone, "we'll do it while you wait."  
So I got into my car and drove the five minutes from my office to the Newcastle CBD and - get this - parked right in front of the bank!  In my family, we call any parking spot within 20 or 30 metres of your actual destination a Cairns park.  If it's right in front, it's a Gordonvale park.  You will know what I mean if you grew up in a small town.  So, having parked my car Gordonvale style, I walked into the bank where there were three customers, and four tellers.  The vacant teller smiled at me as I walked up.  I said, "I would like to organise a  bank cheque, please." 
"Certainly," she said, "you must be the gentleman I who I spoke to on the phone ten minutes ago!"
What service, and what a pleasant way to do business. 
It's not just parking at the bank either.  We went to a function at the City Hall and parked in King Street right in front of the building.  It happened again at the Art Gallery, and later at the Conservatorium of Music.
The Victoria Theatre
This city has many accessible and delightful public buildings. We are still only beginning to explore them. Some of them are just waiting for that little bit of kindness which is going to lift this town to its rightful place as a major Australian city, and not simply a place the occasional politician in Macquarie Street thinks about at election time. The wonderful Victoria Theatre for example, the oldest in NSW, just waiting for the right care and attention  - and the lovely old buildings in the city centre including The Post Office, the Court House and the ANZ Bank Building are deserving of much more preservation and use than they are receiving today.
The founding fathers were very plain-minded when it came to naming suburbs. It appears that once they ran out of names of towns and cities in Wales and the North of England (Swansea, Cardiff, Gateshead, Morpeth and for some bizarre reason, Toronto), they imaginatively moved on to names like The Hill and The Junction and then for reasons which I have not yet been able to establish, they called one of the flattest parts of the city Cooks Hill. But it doesn't matter because it is also one of the more pleasing parts of this town and it is where we have found our new home.
Cooks Hill
It is from here every weekend, that we escape the cheerful nearby cacophony of umpires' whistles and noisy parents at Saturday morning netball and wander down to one of at least five beaches where the first question one of us always asks  is, "How many ships can you see?" 
Before Pasha Bulker made its unwelcome and unscheduled landing on Nobbys Beach during the 2007 storm which will forever carry its name, it was usual for there to be upward of sixty vessels at anchor outside the Harbour waiting for a berth at the coal terminal. Now there are still plenty of ships out there, but for safety reasons never more than 14 or 15 at anchor, while the remainder use a "Vessel Arrival System" involving a floating suburb of about fifty ships drifting in designated areas, one about 120 miles offshore, the other somewhere north of the equator. 
Depending on our mood, we later walk to Darby Street for coffee and poached eggs at one of the many cafés, or we head to The Junction and Lotus where there is always a smile and if we're lucky, a table.
Of course there are a few things we miss. The dearth of good doctors, and the limited access to medical specialists makes one wonder what it must be like in smaller country towns, if it is so difficult here.
Newcastle is a relatively homogenous anglo-celtic city, no doubt due to its mining and steelmaking antecedents, but I feel the tides of change. It seems clear that a generation or two from now, the richness and diversity that larger centres enjoy will be evident here in this attractive city. 
I deliberately use the term attractive city here. Newcastle has certainly seen adversity - a steel mill closed, an earthquake which did more than shake the ground and cause destruction and sadness, it shook our complacency that it could not happen here. The city has had something of a reputation for unpleasant drinking habits and violence in the city centre (yes, Newcastle has its share of hoons) and I don't want to mention the abundance of tattoo parlours, adult stores and bewilderingly, bridal shops which are dotted up and down Hunter Street. 
But since coming here, we have enjoyed becoming "townies".  We delight in walking about the city on the weekend. We love the access to the beach, the friendly folk in the coffee shops and neighbours who go out of their way to chat, those friendly Nesca Park petanquers who engage us so easily in conversation and the evocative sound of ships' horns as they enter and leave port - day or night which is never, ever disturbing. 
We love walking along Shortland Esplanade, after a storm when the waves are breaking over the road, past the spot where only a few hours before rock fisherman were risking their lives for whatever was running that day. We love standing in the rain and watching a huge bulk carrier sliding past Nobbys Head, escorted by a couple of busy tugs making sure it doesn't lose its way as it heads to the coal wharf; and then we turn and face the other direction, to Nobbys Beach, where despite the cold, and the wind, and the rain, some crackpot parasurfer is bouncing over the waves and racing across the sea like a dog chasing an aeroplane.
Yes, I think we're going to like it here and I might even have to become a Knights supporter - maybe.
Just please get rid of that damn railway line slicing through the city like some Berlin Wall and then we can have a central business district and downtown area that will make people envious from Portland to Prague - there I've said it.


  1. This is cool, I expected a phone call to ask me to move to Newcastle too. The caller knowing that after reading this moving history, I would be sure to say. Yeah, I know a bloke in Newcastle.

    Nice one Mike.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Alan, always appreciated.

  2. I was excited to hear that a team's hard at work on the ANZ Bank building, turning it into a small bar. Sounds like it'll be a sensitive restoration, which is fabulous news!

    1. Wonderful news. I was worried about that place. By the way your list of blogs is very impressive.

  3. I just discovered this gem! Wonderful writing, I am proud of you!

  4. Newy! Had a wonderful time there, really only scratched the surface as well, lovely stuff

    Leo x

  5. Enjoyed re-reading this entry Mike especially after you showed us around and also, after our lovely walk with you and Pauline. I am fascinated with the history and architecture!! Did have a little giggle at the "gordonvale park"! I was fortunate to live in an old Queenslander that was a 2 minute stroll to town and the village square.

  6. Whilst viewing photos of 'Vessels alongside Pier 1 Brooklyn', there was one of a young 'one striper' with a diamond who I thought could have been a deck 3/0, hence my 'click'.