By gerard oosterman
On our street and at the very end of it, facing the harbour was a small company called Harry West. They had been there for decades and specialised in sail making and other activities connected to boating and sailing. There was also a slipway where medium sized boats and yachts would be ‘slipped’ and de-fouled of barnacles and recoated with anti-fouling paints. They employed about thirty or forty people in its hay-day with perhaps 20 still employed when we were living there, just a bit higher up from them. Every morning and every afternoon we would watch those workers walking past our house to and from work. Our kids got to know some of them and were often allowed to enter the factory and see the workings of sail making in progress. There were many of those enterprises around Sydney’s harbour foreshores but their numbers were shrinking.
On the other side of Harry West at the end of the dead end street where we were living were a few acres of disused harbour foreshore land which had, through blissful neglect by its owners, become a children’s paradise. They called it ‘the Cane fields’. It had patches of very tall cane type grasses growing which was ideal for cubby houses and hiding places. By dinner time, all one had to do was stroll down and call out and soon kids heads would be popping up from between the reeds of cane. Once, coming back from a week’s camping down the coast, we noticed our house had been entered by someone, not immediately, but later on when going to bed, I shouted to my wife ‘ why did you take the doonah away?’ I didn’t, she said. All the kid’s beds were without doonahs as well. Yet, the glass jars filled with coins or anything else of value had not been taken, just only the doonahs. The police were called and scratched their heads, could not make anything out of it. These doonahs had been bought in Holland and made in Norway from 100% eider down. Expensive, but very warm in winter and yet not sweaty in summer, the ideal bed covers for insomniacs like me. We could only think of someone in need of sleeping out rough or a vagrant that would just take bedding and yet not money. The first thing we did was search all the cubbies in the Cane fields, but even though we found bits and ends of blankets and rags, no doonahs. The mystery was never solved. How did the thief know we had those Norwegian doonahs? Was it a close friend or family member, who knows?
It was a few years later, when our kids had grown past ‘cubby’ house phases that new and young families with younger kids had moved into our street, that the advantage of the Cane fields was continued. But, not for long. It was noticed that dark suited men wearing sinister sun glasses had driven down in BMW’s and been seen spreading maps out on rocks and pointing with a wave of their arms to the expansive water views, then shaking hands followed by demonic laughter. Was the end of the Cane fields in sight? It did not take long and the dreaded letter with Councils envelope arrived with plans for a sub-division of the Cane fields into numerous small blocks. Right in the middle would be a bitumen driveway with allotments on both sides. With no thoroughfare to exit elsewhere it meant extra traffic up and down a very narrow street. The land, apart from the bushes of cane and a profusion of weeds also had the remnants of a maritime past. There was a huge ship’s propeller and steel cabling, square timber logs, a heap of anchors and a mountain of metal cleats. The best part of the Cane fields was its magic smell of industrial harbour, the lovely bouquet of tarred ropes and at low tide the rusted bodies of mangled bows that were still telling stories.
The objections by residents were many and very vocal. Some had access to media and soon the TV cameras began to roll. Of course, every possible angle was exploited and crying children were thrust in front telling how they played in the canes and mothers weeping about losing a valuable children’s park and playground. Indeed, the creative future of entire generation of youth would be risked if the subdivision would be allowed to go ahead. Then, at 7pm the commercial channels would be switched on to see whose child or mother would appear on Telly and phone calls made, ‘did you see me on TV? Yes, ‘you were good’, ‘I am sure your protest will help stop the project.’ The protests grew louder but when the developer ceded the last ten metres along the water facing the harbour as public open space, Council approved.
Soon the bulldozers arrived and in a single hour, decades of magic and history in children’s adventures was growled and grunted away with the might of the dozer’s blade. A puff of blue diesel and that was it. The cane all ploughed and churned to death.