It was 45 years ago, and I was feeling both burdened and excited by the awful secrets of growing up, when I last visited Manly beach with my mother and brothers. I was wearing a hand-me-down skirt passed on from my big sister. It was a dirndl made by my mother from a fashionable purple Hawaiian print. Back then, it was a family tradition to go to Manly beach every school holidays. Usually we would meet up with my Aunty Evvie, who was really my mother’s aunt. She was an ancient lady with soft, powdered skin. She wore a coat and hat. Her father was a pioneering cedar-cutter from the Richmond River. I don’t remember much about her. She was probably in her early seventies. Mainly, I remember the comforting smell of her cheek when we kissed her in greeting. The kiss was obligatory, back then.
Having first survived the Red-Rattler train trip from Blacktown, we would disembark from the ferry and meet Aunty Evvie somewhere along The Corso. Whatever the weather, we would then head to the esplanade. If it was sunny, we swam. When I say swam, I mean we bobbed up and down aimlessly on the swell. My brothers and I could not swim. If it was raining or dull, we would buy fish and chips and share them from a big paper bundle in one of the picnic shelters, while the seagulls squaaarked and postured close by.
I have lived in Tasmania, now, for thirty-one years. You can, therefore, imagine the nostalgia stirred up by my short trip to Manly beach last weekend. I travelled with my second eldest daughter, who had heard so many wistful memories of Sydney, during her years growing up in a celery-top pine hippie house in a treed valley in southern Tasmania.
The ghost of my mother, born in Hornsby in 1925 and recently lost to old age, was ever-present. I wanted to be able to tell her about all those things that were, miraculously, still the same, and the others, that (not surprisingly) were not. Strangely, it seemed that it was not only my daughter and I who were feeling nostalgic about Manly’s past. It is a place shaped by nostalgia, its history celebrated by the local shops and hotels, surfboard vendors, pubs, and even the council. How wonderful it was to see the row of old Norfolk pines, and a younger row planted for the inevitable time when the ancient ones eventually die. How pleased I was to see the preservation of the old picnic shelters, the ocean pool at Fairy Bower, the surf club, the Far West school and the Manly Quay. Blown-up, black and white photographs of old Manly graced the walls of the modern hotel where we stayed, and it was sobering, indeed, to realize that I was old enough to remember the world portrayed in these quaint, historical records.
My sojourn in Tasmania’s verdant south for thirty-one years provided me with the opportunity to see the once-familiar with fresh eyes, and I was keenly aware of those changes, more social than physical, that, as they used to say, stuck out like a sore thumb, as I walked the crowded footpath along the foreshore. – These are my fellow countrymen! I remarked, tongue-in-cheek, to my daughter. I felt little sense of community. Why was everyone so fast? So intense? So focused? Many, many times, as a child, I had tripped along the hot footpath to Fairy Bower and Shelly Beach, the pavement too hot for our bare feet. Back then, in days of yore, people strolled, they sauntered and meandered. There was nothing like this number of people cramming the footpath, nor was there the absolute intensity with which they performed this supposed leisure activity.
I have studied “leisure” at both a graduate and post-graduate level. One thing I have gleaned from my studies is that leisure activities are meant to be relaxing. Let me tell you: the human river of gortex-clad pacers, striders, scooterers, joggers, and hoverers was far, far from relaxed. Because I now have the privilege of age (I am fifty-eight) and of detachment (I live far away in a different culture), I am sharing these insights with you. I hope you accept them in the spirit in which they are written, which is a cynical kind of bemusement.
One of the main concerns I came away with from the excitement of the esplanade was the observation that there seemed a deliberate blurring of the distinction between children and adults. Thirty-something fathers scootered (might I venture, comically) on tiny, wheeled apparatuses beside three-year-olds trundling along on identical vehicles. Indeed, the small children appeared to display more sense than their parents, who occasionally called out to make sure that their charges had not scootered off a cliff.
Despite their Peter Pan tendencies, fathers, however, seemed to have more time for their children. Several times, I heard fathers, who were already occupied with the scootering offspring, asking their partners to watch out for one straggling toddler in danger of being left behind. There was a kind of preoccupied air about the ponytail-bobbing, spandex-pant-wearing, hard-edged mothers. They almost seemed drunk on something. I was taken aback when one child, having implored her mother to come and see something exciting, was met with the deadpan response: Show me, then…and an unpleasant expression from behind narrow, Cruella Deville-esque spectacles that might have accompanied the child’s request to investigate a pile of dog turds.
In the bustle of all this frenetic exercise, it would have been easy to overlook the homeless man sleeping in the picnic shelter with a blue tarp wrapped firmly over him, and his green Woolies bags of possessions stacked in some kind of personal Dewey System underneath the benches, or the elderly lady with Downs Syndrome pulling her shopping cart and sifting through the garbage receptacles. They were there, back then, too. Back then, when I was a kid. Walking away from the beach, toward the quay, it seemed that the real residents of Manly were mainly in the streets beyond the esplanade. Here were the migrants, the elderly and the disabled. It was years since I’d seen a person with cerebral palsy left in a wheelchair to swelter, without shade, in a wheelchair armed with cash tins and pamphlets, in order that they might collect donations from passing strangers, but, hello! here one was! Like everyone else, I walked past with my eyes on the zigzagged brickwork under my feet, amazed that this sort of crass exploitation still goes on.
The Manly Quay was almost unchanged from way back then, when “Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice” churned endlessly in its glass globe, and the stink of seawater sloshed around in your excited nostrils. Indeed, the ferry we boarded was one that I would have ridden many times as a child: the Narrabeen. Having lived in Tasmania since the age of six, my daughter was amazed to see the iconic Harbour Bridge and the Opera House so real that they almost seemed ludicrous. Way back when I was a kid, we used to wave to the passengers on other ferries as they passed, but waving at strangers is, apparently, a lost art.
On my way home to Tassie, just yesterday, I sat waiting at Gate 49 for the Jetstar plane to take me back across Bass Strait. Opposite me, a young girl of about ten years sat beside her father, who leaned in toward her as she instructed him on how to play a game on her iPad. The father mimicked fun and delight, but surreptitiously swiped at a tear. I gathered that his daughter was returning home, after a stay in Sydney during the school holidays. The child patiently explained the game, feigning obliviousness to her father’s distress. As the passengers lined up to board the plane, the father held his daughter tight, leaning over her, as though he might pick her up and refuse to let her go. She returned the hug, more controlled than he, patting his back to give comfort. Sad as this tableau was, I couldn’t help feeling that it was the child that was parenting the adult.
Things do change. We all know that. But, maybe, it’s a good idea to remember the things that, once-upon-a-time, were simply better. As a person of impending great age and wisdom, I would just like to say that it was better when grown-ups were not just larger, more cashed-up children; when leisure was actually leisurely; when mothers were protective and, dare I say it, a little less narcissistic. I am now back in the Land of Nod, where I burn wood to heat my home, and where we walk and talk a bit slow. I guess, after all, I belong here now.
Philomena van Rijswijk is a Tasmanian author. Amongst other work, her novel, The World as a Clockface, was published by Penguin in 2001.