Soliloquies and Images from Balmain
When we moved for the first time to Balmain it did not have a library. Balmain was regarded as a place best avoided, known for its crooks, killers and itinerant rabittos. Apart from those flacid rabbits; milk and bread would also still be delivered. It was still endowed with having dozens of pubs with Friday-night booze-ups and fights being very normal. On Saturday mornings same pubs would be hosed down and mopped with hospital strength disinfectant, used as a fumigant against the pervasive odor of drunks and their much loved piss-ups.
Bib-n-Brace overalls would be hanging from Hills Hoists. Walking the streets at those times had the smell of mutton bone inspired poverty and sounds of clunky working boots on their way down to Harry West’s Stevedoring. You would never give your address as Balmain, especially if you wanted a loan from The Bank of New South Wales, except if you knew the local manager. I still remember his name when he gave us a stern warning when buying a house for $ 12.000 with glorious harbour views. His name was Alan Jackson. “You are buying just a shed”, “it’s just a dump”, he said with a smile.
After the advent of the coal-loader and ship’s containerization the Balmain peninsula became a bohemian ‘in-place’ with cheap wine casks slowly replacing long-necks of ale. Properties that were shunned for decades started selling. University lecturers with their lover students started moving in. Dope smoke and songs of Sonny and Cher, ‘I’ve got you Babe’ and later Carly Simon, ‘oh you are so vain’, filtered down onto liberated streets. In with the new.
One such brave man was Larry Lake. (1916-1989) He moved to Balmain from Canberra where he had worked as head of the National Library for many years and also previously as Liaison Officer and Chief Selection Librarian in London. He bought a small workers cottage not far from where we were living at the end of the peninsula and close to the water’s edge. When large boats reversed propellers and their engines, the landmass would shake and our mugs hooked onto the kitchen cupboard wall would do the rattle and shake.
We met Larry Lake through The Balmain Association which had formed during the late sixties. The president of The Association for many years was John Morris, who at the time was also the president of The National Trust. Monthly meetings were held in the Balmain Watch-house which wasn’t used anymore. The ‘Watch-House’ and Police lock-up had fallen into disrepair. Its original purpose was a sleep-over for knock about delinquents and the permanently inebriated rough necks of the Balmain and Inner West during the period that Balmain was one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Sydney. This ‘Watch-House’ designed in the Georgian style by the Colonial architect Edmund Thomas Blacket was rented out to the Balmain Association for a nominal ‘Pepper and Salt ‘fee.
Helvi and I became members of this Association and Larry Lake suggested we could transform one of the Watch House cells into a children’s library. We couldn’t believe our ears. A library? At this time Balmain must have had some books but they would have been far and wide in between. Hooves and Horses more likely with Woman’s Weekly and Pix scattered around some of the more affluent terraces.
It was a hay day for communal living in the truest sense. I am unsure if this ‘community spirit’ is still thriving elsewhere. Perhaps it has and is blossoming in those new mining communities with the influx of so many young couples keen on making it. It certainly has disappeared in Balmain. There are hardly children about with none playing about with Billy-carts. Where are they? Are they perhaps inside with X-boxes or have they been with replaced by remote roll-a-doors and multimillion extensions with huge micro wave ovens and security devices. Both parents are most likely working and pale looking. Children in Child-care at $ 100. -a day, who wouldn’t look pallid? The kids remain well hidden.
But, going back, it was extraordinary how so many good and gifted people got together and all at the same time. Larry Lake, a book expert. John Morris a conservationist and President of National Trust, right at the time of large scale demolition orgies throughout Sydney. The Balmain Watch House and the Children’s Library kept functioning till Leichhardt Council decided to stop the book famine and gave Balmain its own library. There were some odd ball aldermen too, Nick Origlass and Izzy Wyner, ‘spindle legs’ Phillip Bray and so many others.
We went to Larry Lake’s wake. He was a terrific bloke and good friend. He had a hand in saving and restoring “The sentimental Bloke” a very good Australian film.
They were the good times.