Thursday, 2 September 2027

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sandor Berger, Sydney's Great Eccentrics, Medium, 10 September, 2018.

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Sandor Berger

Sydney’s Great Eccentrics

The author outside Sandor Berger’s room, 1989.
Not every famous person has a name.
And almost no one knew the name of Sandor Berger, one of Sydney’s best known eccentrics.
For many years notices appeared on telegraph poles across inner-Sydney: “Psychiatry is Evil, It Must Be Banned!!”
Everyone knew of him, nobody knew who he was, The Psychiatry is Evil man. You could hear people talking about him at parties, all of it speculation.
Sometimes, the story went, he was spotted as far afield as Parramatta Road, wearing placards and handing out leaflets.
Always with the same message: Psychiatry is Evil.
My guess: he was a survivor from the barbaric days of electric shock treatment.
But I did not know.
One of his notices titled Close Down the Belsens! read in part:
Mental patients are people! Eliminate the mercenary hypocrisy and the antagonistic approach.

We See Them in Glimpses

NSW State Library, Sydney, 1960s
Sydney was full of eccentrics.
In a series on Sydney’s Secret history blogger Coffin Ed recalls sitting on the steps of the Town Hall watching three of Sydney’s most famous eccentrics converging each other.
The year was 1974:
Approaching from George Street south was the mysterious ‘knife grinder’, a man who had been pushing a metal box on wheels around the streets of Sydney for what seemed like an eternity.
Walking down Park Street was another offbeat character … who was famous for carrying and displaying a small Chinese fan whenever your eyes made contact.
From the north of George Street, directly outside the old Town Hall Hotel came Sandor Berger, poet, publisher and a crusader famous for the placard he wore attached to his chest which shouted “Psychiatry Is An Evil And Must Be Stamped Out”.
With an uncanny synchronisation of the traffic lights they came together for that fleeting moment in history on the corner of Park and George. Neither acknowledged each other and they simply disappeared into the night.
The Sydney Sandor Berger knew


Sydney’s best known eccentric is the “Eternity Man” Arthur Stace.
Beginning in the late 1940s, Stace began writing the one word “Eternity” on pavements across the central parts of the city, from Wynyard to Glebe, Paddington to Randwick.
The Book
Arthur Stace was born in Balmain in 1884 to a reputedly alcoholic mother and father. He overcame his own addiction to the bottle when he discovered the Church.
At one such meeting he heard the Reverend John Ridley shout:
“I wish I could shout eternity through the streets of Sydney.”
In recalling the day Stace said:
“He kept repeating himself and shouting ‘Eternity, Eternity’ and his words were ringing through my brain as I left the church. Suddenly I began crying and felt powerful call from the Lord to write ‘Eternity’.
“I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and bent down and wrote it.
“The funny thing is that before I wrote I could barely write my own name. I had no schooling and couldn’t spell ‘Eternity’ for a hundred quid.
“But it came out smoothly in a beautiful copperplate script and I couldn’t understand it and still don’t.”
Arthur Stace is estimated to have written the word half a million times before he died in 1967 at the age of 83.
In 2018, opposite the NSW Art Gallery, stencilled into the pavement, lies the following:

Nobody’s Business

For reasons that are nobody’s business, back in 1989 I just happened to know well the dilapidated boarding house where Sandor Berger spent his final years.
When I discovered the identity of the man in the room downstairs from where I used to visit, I became determined to do a story and pitched the idea to the Sydney Morning Herald’s News Desk where I worked.
Thus it was that I came, in official mode, to be pounding on Sandor Berger’s door. Photographer beside me. News car waiting for us in the street.
Ruins, of course, are always evocative and I was fascinated by a sense of decline. Even here.
Sandor Berger, then 64, was getting older, and the notices he had plastered all over Sydney now appeared only on a light poles within a few hundred metres of where he resided.
The interview did not go well. He refused to open his door.
But I was working, and could not return to the office empty handed.
“I am not suitable for a hard interview,” he said through his door. “I could not cover a fraction of it. It will take preparation. I am an entirely preoccupied person.”


What made Sandor Berger particularly fascinating was that he lodged a number of vividly written self-published books with the NSW State Library.
He had a peculiar, highly pressurised type of consciousness, where he could hear things hundreds of metres away.
Unlike so many of the city’s invisible eccentrics, he left behind a record.
Amongst his works were a collection of letters and articles written to newspaper editors on almost every imaginable topic called I Protest.
He also published a larger volume called Appendix to I Protest. And a volume more than twice the size of the original called An Appendix to the Appendix of I Protest.
Sandor Berger also wrote two angry volumes written while he was in Long Bay Jail on assault charges in the 1960s.
The books resound with the sounds and brutality and bleakness of the prison and bitterness at his own sentence.
Highly upset at being imprisoned on assault charges he has always denied, he described himself as the most victimised scapegoat in the 2,000 years since Jesus Christ.

Sandor Berger’s Response

Many of the people I wrote about never read newspapers, and never read what I wrote.
But Sandor Berger was an exception. He was incensed.
Site of Sandor Berger’s old boarding house
Which saddened me because, in a sense, the piece was a mark of appreciation
With the article photocopied into the corner of a large sheet, he wrote:
I have read the article you sneaked in on me urgently, without my consent.
You must have been really desperate for a story if you couldn’t find anything else to write about in the way you did and with such urgency that you couldn’t wait for my own “Press Release”.
Your article is biased and unfairly selective and your quotations from my early writings are out of context and are in some parts of it possibly defamatory.
Sandor Berger concluded:
It is obvious that at best you seek to ridicule … to divert attention away from the contents … and to alienate the author & discourage people from reading…
Donated to NSW State Library

Sandor Berger grew up in the Hungarian village of Csenger.
In a biographical note he records:
“There is that beautiful place where I spent my childhood, went to school and played with my fellow kids, until I grew into a youth of 19, when, like lightning from the clear sky, the tragedy struck.”
Captured by the Germans, he saw his parents directed to the right — that is to the gas ovens — while he was directed to the right.
Sandor arrived in Sydney in 1952, and wrote that it was during his first 18 months of hunger and unemployment that the desire to write came upon him:
“It burst to the surface like the fire of a volcano … full of inspiration, anger and pity, bitterness and sentimentality, was then transformed into rhymes of protest, into lines, stanzas and ballads of condemnation and scorn.”
Sandor Berger died in 2006 at the age of 81.
The boarding house where he once lived, and shouted at me through his door, is now a prestige property.
The Sydney he once knew and fought against is barely recognisable.

Adapted for Medium from the upcoming book Hunting the Famous.
Based on articles first written for The Sydney Morning Herald.
John Stapleton worked as a staff reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald from 1986–1994 and for The Australian from 1994–2009.
A collection of his journalism is being constructed here.
Oxford Street, 1960s. Dictionary of Sydney.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

The Laughing Lama: On Meeting a Buddhist Master, Medium, 6 September, 2017.

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The Laughing Lama

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

On Meeting a Buddhist Master

“Spiritual truth is not something elaborate and esoteric, it is in fact profound common sense. When you realize the nature of mind, layers of confusion peel away. You don’t actually “become” a buddha, you simply cease, slowly, to be deluded. And being a buddha is not being some omnipotent spiritual superman, but becoming at last a true human being.” Sogyal Rinpoche.
There was I, a humble hack on the highways of print, a working journalist, facing a man who was one of the great interpreters of Buddhism in the West, bringing with him centuries of wisdom.
Western scientists, cosmologists, psychologists and doctors were all fascinated.

Terton Sogyal

Sogyal Rinpoche was raised in Tibetan monasteries and schooled in the ways of Buddhism from a child.
He is believed by his followers to be the reincarnation of one of the great masters, Terton Sogyal, whose disciples included the 13th Dalai Lama.
Sogyal Rinpoche came from one of the wealthiest families in Tibet; sponsors of Buddhism in the country since the 14th Century.
He was raised by one of the most revered spiritual masters of 20th Century, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö.
With the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he went into exile with his master, who died in 1959 in Sikkim in the Himalayas.

Dzogchen Monastery, Kham

The Line of Duty

In my normal line of duty as a news reporter on The Sydney Morning Herald I had written a story about Buddhist temples in the west of Sydney.
In those days, the early 1990s, the idea that there were religious institutions and celebrations other than Christian services was a novelty — out there in the Western suburbs of Sydney the elitist news editors and genteel readers of the Herald knew so little about.
Sufficient a novelty for a reporter to be dispatched to investigate with a photographer and a driver, out there in those wild, unknown reaches.
And hopefully return with a yarn and a picture good enough to fill that gaping maw, a large daily broadsheet desperate for news.
Newspapers are like bonfires. They burn stories.
In those days, 1993, with a nascent internet, print was king and there were many pages to fill. It was an entirely different world, before the advertisers deserted en masse and news came to be read on devices.

Face the Press

Republished with a Forward by the Dalai Lama

A few weeks after the publication of that little yarn someone from Australia’s multicultural public broadcaster SBS rang me up, purring compliments about how sensitively I wrote and what great knowledge of Buddhism I displayed.
They asked me to go on their show Face the Press as part of an interview panel for someone or other called Sogyal Rinpoche, who was touring the world promoting his book The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Cynicism is a reporter’s stock in trade.
We are always being called into a situation because someone thinks publicity will serve their ends, whether it’s to sell a product, bolster electoral opportunity, wreak vengeance on an enemy or find justice in exposure.
My children were young. My partner was a nightmare. My bosses were a pain in the derriere. And in some deep sense: I was not well.

A thangka of bhutadamara vajrapani mandala by Anonymous Tibetan

Harried and short of time, I begged off, telling them the truth. I had no special knowledge of or background in Buddhism. All I had done was pick the brains of the Buddhist Information Service and their particularly able frontman, Graeme Lyall.
I simply was not qualified. There were plenty more people better suited.
I insisted. They persisted.
In the end the Chief of Staff ordered me to do it.
Most reporters have neither the time nor the inclination to read the works of the authors they interview.
But being a literary type of fellow, and in preparation for the interview, I read the book. And a fascinating read it was.

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, written by Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche, immediately assumed, upon first publication in the early 1990s, status as a great spiritual masterpiece.
It was republished with a Forward by the Dalai Lama.
With rapidly evolving circumstance facing down a sickness of heart, mind, culture and belief, a sickness of the world and a sickness of the spiritual realm, perhaps there could be no more relevant text.
In his Forward the Dalai Lama wrote:

As a Buddhist, I view death as a normal process, a reality that I accept will occur as long as I remain in this earthly existence.
Knowing that I cannot escape it, I see no point in worrying about it.
I tend to think of death as being like changing your clothes when they are old and worn out, rather than as some final end.
Yet death is unpredictable: We do not know when or how it will take place.
So it is only sensible to take certain precautions before it actually happens.
Naturally, most of us would like to die a peaceful death, but it is also clear that we cannot hope to die peacefully if our lives have been full of violence, or if our minds have mostly been agitated by emotions like anger, attachment, or fear.
So if we wish to die well, we must learn how to live well: Hoping for a peaceful death, we must cultivate peace in our mind, and in our way of life.
His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

From the text, from life

Silk Road Treasures. Scenes from the Life of Buddha.

I had a set of rubber people questions — after all we were talking life and death here — and The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying was no ordinary book.
None of the normal questions applied.
Sogyal Rinpoche’s stated aim was to inspire a quiet revolution in the whole way we look at death and care for the dying, and the whole way we look at life, and care for the living.
The event was, well, gracious.
Rinpoche was highly intelligent, charming, infinitely wise, commanding of respect, but at the same easy to interview. The conversation flowed.
“Death is like a mirror in which the true meaning of life is reflected,” he said. “What is important is the way you live.”
And I believed him.

Guru yabyum Nyingma pa Dharma Refugee Tree

At one point I asked:
“So this is what you mean when you say, if you are not prepared for death, you are not prepared for life?”
Sogyal Rinpoche’s face lit up with an expression of pure delight.
He had just spied before him that rarest of jewels — a journalist who had actually read his book.
After the taping the Buddhist Master laughed and held my hand as the small band of journalists made our way towards the lifts.
In the background were devotees who clearly revered him as a living god.
I thought about him for many days afterwards.
At the time I felt like I had just interviewed Jesus Christ or the Buddha, an entity from another time and place, a reincarnation, an old and very wise soul.


A young Sogyal Rinpoche with Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö


The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is not only full of wisdom, but clear in a way spiritual text really are. As I pontificated at the time, “It does not invite the normal critical posturings.”
The descriptions of childhood are very evocative, the personal anecdotes illuminating, the broad knowledge of Buddhist text unparalleled. It is full of vignettes.

MY OWN FIRST EXPERIENCE of death came when I was about seven.
We were preparing to leave the eastern highlands to travel to central Tibet.
Samten, one of the personal attendants of my master, was a wonderful monk who was kind to me during my childhood. He had a bright, round, chubby face, always ready to break into a smile.

Ghar Monastery, Kham Nangchen, Yushu Prefecture

He was everyone’s favorite in the monastery because he was so good natured.
Every day my master would give teachings and initiations and lead practices and rituals.
Toward the end of the day, I would gather together my friends and act out a little theatrical performance, reenacting the morning’s events.
It was Samten who would always lend me the costumes my master had worn in the morning.
He never refused me.

Then suddenly Samten fell ill, and it was clear he was not going to live. We had to postpone our departure.
I will never forget the two weeks that followed.
The rank smell of death hung like a cloud over everything, and whenever I think of that time, that smell comes back to me.
The monastery was saturated with an intense awareness of death.
This was not at all morbid or frightening, however; in the presence of my master, Samten’s death took on a special significance.
It became a teaching for us all.

Tibetan Thangka Wheel of Life

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space.
He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature.
Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The Bad Boy of Buddhism

Photo: Mayu Kanamori MKZ

In later years scandal enveloped the Master.
Headlines described the accusations:
Sogyal Rinpoche and the abuse accusations rocking the Buddhist world
Punching. Emotional abuse. Eye-popping sexual misdeeds. The accusations made against Sogyal Rinpoche — a key lama in the uptake of Buddhist principles by the West — have rocked devotees, including many in the top echelons of Australian business.
Sydney Morning Herald, David Leser, 1 December, 2017.

Sexual assaults and violent rages… Inside the dark world of Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche
Within the Buddhist community, however, Sogyal Rinpoche has long been a controversial figure.
For years, rumours have circulated on the internet about his behaviour, and in the 1990s a lawsuit alleging sexual and physical abuse was settled out of court.
The UK Daily Telegraph, Mick Brown, 21 September, 2017.
Sogyal Rinpoche went into retreat and then retired.
In a message to his followers he wrote:
Don’t ever forget the most important thing of all: these incredible teachings that we have shared together.
We have lived through such extraordinary moments together, where we all experienced the very deepest aspect of our bodhichitta, our buddha nature, the ultimate nature of mind.
How can we not remember?
We need to keep these teachings constantly in our minds and to hold them, so they will last long, long into the future.
They can not die.
Whatever did or did not happen, what I remember most about the author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying is the way he held my hand as he beamed a kind of intra-dimensional delight.
And we made our way to the lifts.

Adapted for Medium from the upcoming book Hunting the Famous.
Devote the mind to confusion and we know only too well, if we’re honest, that it will become a dark master of confusion, adept in its addictions, subtle and perversely supple in its slaveries.
Devote it in meditation to the task of freeing itself from illusion, and we will find that, with time, patience, discipline, and the right training, our mind will begin to unknot itself and know its essential bliss and clarity. Sogyal Rinpoche.

Painted 17th century Tibetan ‘Five Deity Mandala’,

Monday, 3 September 2018

Bridget Lafferty Leaves Redfern, Medium, 2 September, 2018.

Bridget Lafferty Leaves Redfern

Images, paintings and recollections by Bridget Lafferty

People dwell in large cities for different periods of time, for different reasons.
Then they disappear. Without a record, they disappear even more finally.
The view from Bridget’s back window
Bridget Lafferty, artist and high school teacher, came to Redfern in 1999, looking for work, love and life.
My initial reaction was shock.
That was the final years of the heroin epidemic which had turned Redfern place upside down. The place was wild. Truly wild.
A police crackdown in other parts of Sydney had driven dealers and addicts to the narrow streets of Redfern, which were essentially lawless.
Bridget painted many images of the area, including this one.
Backyard View. Oil on Canvas. 2012.
I love the squares. I wanted to capture the way the buildings catch the facets of light and create a pattern.
There are many whimsical and historical elements to this area, but this painting was really only about a play of light.
The Aboriginal flag gets in there, and tells me there is a new sun rising.
The city of Sydney is usually depicted as a sparkling harbour with the Bridge and the Opera House.
This is the dirtier side, looking from the west, and is the rougher view.
That’s the way I see the city, with the Aboriginal flag at the centre, rather than the Harbour Bridge.
And the city has turned its back on us.
That’s what I feel.

I see my students as artists, I wonder if their parents are road workers

We stomp all over them.
The Workmen I. Oil on canvas. 2012.
Drive our cars all over their work.
The whites treat them like dirt. Definitely. But they’re the workers, they’re the ones who are doing all the hard work at night making everything beautiful for us. Their so much more than what the world sees them as.
Then we come out during the day.
And don’t appreciate all the work they do for us.
But they are the ones who keep the city going.
Workmen II. Oil on canvas. 2012.

The Glengarry Castle

Much of Redfern’s social life revolves around the local pub, the infamous Glengarry Castle.
The Glengarry. Commissioned by the Hotel. 2012.
“I met my then partner there, Mick O’Brien.
He was an SBS news cameraman. I was pretty impressed by that.
He was also a musician and was singing and playing beautifully with his mate Phil Cole when I first saw him.
And of course he was Irish.
Mick was pretty much the love of my life but that’s the saddest thing in the world because we only went out for two years. If anyone’s my husband it’s him. We’ve been friends in the ten years since we broke up.”
I was sick of going out with the girlfriends to dinner talking about stuff. I didn’t know any stuff. I felt like I was poorly educated.
I don’t need to pretend that it’s a better way to be, knowing stuff.
So that’s why I loved the Glengarry, hanging out with all the other people who didn’t know any stuff either, but certainly knew how to play music, and how to drink.
Mick was the same. When he went out with all his colleagues he was dumbfounded, barely said a word.
But at the Glengarry he was King.
When we’re not good with words, we use pictures and when we’re not good with pictures we use fists. That’s the way we are.

The Local IGA

I like the way the trees bend. It reminds me a little of Cezanne.
I was influenced by what I was teaching my students, Mr Lathuris’s unit on the Fauves, a group of French painters, the best known being Matisse.
That section of Regent Street is actually rather bleak, down near the housing estates.
The painting is really pretty; but it’s a dirty part of the world.
I would never go to the doctors down there. It was Junky Central.
I don’t feel comfortable in this world, so sometimes I would go down there to shop.
IGA stands for Independent Grocers of Australia.
I was working from intuition, and that was what came out.
I don’t really know why I painted this painting.
I liked the wiggly trees. They are trying to find the light.
I was just looking for images.
I was feeling really empty and lost. And also not wanting to be so subjective. Self expression was no longer something urgent, I had stopped exploring my inner self and started observing with my image making; it was a stage of growing up. Being less subjective, more objective.
Just looking at the world around me, and being lost in it.


The crush. Alright, it was a good old fashioned, fateful crush.
Tug of the heart. We all laugh.
Immigrant Jewish background.
Nouveau rich but working class.
Gersch was a builder and a drummer, fine at both.
His parents wanted him to be a builder. He wanted to be a drummer. In the end he excelled at both.
And went kind of mad, for awhile.
His masterpiece is his house. The house in this painting.
It might look ordinary on the outside.
Inside, it an in progress architectural work of genius, all made by his own hand.
His is the same story as others I am drawn to; everyone with a troubled background, the parents are workaholics, my father was a workaholic, emotionally disturbed.
They’re really beautiful, artistic, work their asses off, these people. They’re just not part of the established elite.
That was Gersch.

Subjective to the Objective

When you’re young you wonder around the world trying to figure out who you are.
In our youth we protest, we scream and cry.
The World Around Me. Oil on Canvas. 2012.
It wasn’t until I was 35 before I could look at the world I was in.
It took that long for me to grow up and stop crying and lamenting and open my eyes and see.
That doesn’t mean it’s a higher form of art, in fact lesser because, I have less to say.
I have conformed; they have tamed this shrew.
That is why I want to go back to being less fluffy, more convinced, more determined.
Fuck the art world.
The grownup world. I don’t want to be in that world.
You have to be able to cry and lament, but if that consumes everything, you’re a junky in a housing estate. Autism, dyslexia, they are all emotional disturbances.
White middle class people do well because they have less troubles.
I don’t want to paint landscapes anymore, I don’t want to be objective, I want to be subjective.
I want to go back.

John Stapleton was one of Bridget Lafferty’s neighbours for more than eight years. During this time he was living with his then young children and working on The Australian newspaper.
A collection of his journalism can be found here.
Bridget Lafferty works as a high school arts teacher and also paints. She lived in inner-city Redfern in Sydney from 1999-2018.
Ceramic. 2014.

Murder on Lower Fort Street, Medium, 4 September, 2018.

Murder On Lower Fort Street

With Photography by Tim Ritchie

History Rich Meets Greed Unleashed

There is no more historic, more superbly located or visually rich part of Sydney than The Rocks.
Tucked in under the southern flank of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, from the earliest days of the colony it was known as a slum, for its gambling dens, drinking houses, lively women, dirt poor housing.
Just around the corner from the multi-million dollar selling homes on Lower Fort, with unfettered views to the harbour, is where the first bubonic plague victim died, on the 19th of January, 1900.
He was Arthur Paine, a 33 year old delivery man whose daily work brought him into contact with Central Wharf.
A few short steps away, on the former site of the Live and Let Live Hotel, the Stevens Buildings 1900. With its four floors and 32 rooms, it was the first walk-up block of flats in Sydney.
Some of the surrounding sandstone block buildings date back to the 1840s. Throughout the 19th Century the area was known for gambling dens and brothels.
The period beginning in 2010 now sees the area in its final throes of becoming a wealthy enclave.
But in this place, where the mewling masses once made a living on The Fatal Shore, a modern day real estate rush, government connivance, wiping clean the history of an underclass is a story where a ledger is not held, and history dogs every step.
With the best views in Sydney as a backdrop.

The Meaning of Life: A View is Everything

No one in Sydney, wrote playwright David Williamson in his love hate paen The Emerald City, “ever wastes time debating the meaning of life — it’s getting yourself a water frontage”.
Guess who just sold it. Guess who just bought it.
As the state’s Community Services Minister, Pru Goward announced in mid-March 2014 that around 300 harbourfront public housing properties would be sold under the management of Government Property NSW.
Some sixty properties already lay vacant.
The remaining public housing population would be relocated
The state government generated hundreds of millions of dollars from the sales.
Pru Goward justified the sale:
“In the last two years alone, nearly $7 million has been spent maintaining this small number of properties. That money could have been better spent on building more social housing, or investing in the maintenance of public housing properties across the state.”
The NSW government could have adopted a civilised approach.
Instead the NSW Planning and Housing Departments managed to alienate everybody, the tenants, the media, the housing workers themselves, and the police who had to deal with the consequences of political and administrative ineptitude.
With just a modicum of decency and common sense the protests, the waving banners, squatters, distress of the residents, premature deaths and hostile media coverage the state government generated could all have been avoided.
It is hard to imagine a bigger debacle at Millers Point if you had been planning it from birth.

The Hungry Mile

The battles echoed a harsher history.
During the Great Depression the docklands were called The Hungry Mile by harbourside workers searching, often fruitlessly, for a job.
They tramp there in their legions on the mornings dark and cold
Images Courtesy Maritime Union of Australia
To beg the right to slave for bread from Sydney’s lords of gold;
They toil and sweat in slavery, ‘twould make the devil smile,
To see the Sydney wharfies tramping down the hungry mile.
On ships from all the seas they toil, that others of their kind,
 May never know the pinch of want nor feel the misery blind;
 That makes the live, of men a hell in those conditions vile;
 That are the hopeless lot of those who tramp the hungry mile.
The slaves of men who know no thought of anything but gain,
Who wring their brutal profits from the blood and sweat and pain
Of all the disinherited that slave and starve the while,
Upon the ships beside the wharves along the hungry mile.
But every stroke of that grim lash that sears the souls of men
With interest due from years gone by, shall be paid back again
To those who drive these wretched slaves to build the golden pile,
And blood shall blot the memory out — of Sydney’s hungry mile.
The day will come, aye, come it must, when these same slaves shall rise,
And through the revolution’s smoke, ascending to the skies,
The master’s, face shall show the fear he hides, behind his smile,
Of these his slaves, who on that day shall storm the hungry mile.
And when the world grows wiser and all men at last are free,
When none shall feel the hunger nor tramp in misery
To beg the right to slave for bread, the children then may smile.
At those strange tales they tell of what was once the hungry mile.
Ernest Antony (1894–1960). The Hungry Mile.

The Visitation: State Generated Chaos

In mid-September of 2014, in a scene repeated a number of times across the historic suburb, it took 12 policemen and several housing officers to remove squatters from one of the houses on Argyle Place in the centre of The Rocks.
Posters and banners on surrounding houses sent the message:
“Save Our Community”, “Save Our Heritage”, “Save Our Homes”, “Living Community History Not 4 Sale.”
There were also blown up posters of newspaper articles:
Images Courtesy Totskyist Platform
“The state government is offloading 100s of harbourside homes at Millers Point without economic modelling or an up-to-date social housing plan, raising doubts over the integrity of the controversial sale.” Sydney Morning Herald.
As the squatters briefly stood their ground in Argyle Place, a band of protestors and other interested parties watched silently or heckled the police, who were just doing their jobs and should never have been placed in the situation they were; and the housing officers, many of whom don’t agree with what they are being asked to do.
After a standoff lasting several hours the students drove off in a late-model Rav-4.
In truth they weren’t the genuinely homeless. They were just protesting the bully tactics the NSW State Government used to rid the Rocks of public housing tenants; and to sell-off some of the most spectacular real estate in Australia.
Fast forward to 2017, and there were barely a dozen residents left, with an estimated 500 moved from the area.
The forcible removal of activist hold-out, 57-year-old Peter Muller, sparked days of protest.
A spokesperson for the residents, Barney Gardner, told the protest:
“After an all-day picket outside Peter’s home yesterday, police forced their way in this morning, escorted the young people out and put Peter’s belongings in a removalist van.
“The government and department have told lies all through this process. We have suffered three years of stress, including suicides and multiple hospitalisations of elderly and vulnerable residents.”
Image Courtesy Trotskyist Platform

Eradicating Memories

There was a flurry of media stories emphasising the attachment inhabitants had to the area.
The large number of tenants with historical links to the area was due to the fact that many of the houses were originally rented from the Maritime Services Board, prior to the properties being handed over to the Housing Department decades before.
“My father was a waterfront worker.”
“I can remember as a child in the wool season, the big horses with the bales of wool.”
“The row of terrace houses that I live in now, it is supposed to be the first row of terrace houses in the country, we moved in here in 1946”.
Amidst all the banners and posters, photocopied, A-4 sized photographs of elderly residents have been placed in strategic locations around Millers Point, each of them accompanied by stories from their lives:
“Everyone had their hotel, but no one used to be exclusive because they knew their mates would be at a different pub at a different time.”
“I reckon to move from here, after 50 odd years in Millers Point, will just about see the end of me.”
“Boxing Day we used to take over Kent Street, we didn’t ask permission, we’d block off one end all the way up to where the Bridge is now, and we used to play cricket games.”
“My five children have fond memories of growing up here.”

The Sirius Building

The Syrius building was the focus of much of the protest; a high-rise, 79-unit apartment complex overlooking the Harbour Bridge.
It had long been a point of egalitarian curiosity, that some of Sydney’s poorest of the poor had the best views.
Sydney University lecturer Oliver Watts writes in his piece In Praise of the Sirius Building:
Courtesy Green Left Weekly
It is on the run to ruin that finally Sirius is telling its story most loudly. The empty shell of a building points to the failure of its 70s dream that even public and low cost housing should have a city water view.
Watts writes that the Syrius Building embodied the idea that social housing should be mixed: from the elderly to the young; from families to singles; from essential service workers including teachers and cleaners, to those on the pension.
View from the Syrius Building Courtesy ABC
The Sirius, by the architect Tao Gofers, is a product of its time. Built in 1979 — to provide public housing for people relocated from the Rocks during the time of the green bans — it lasted merely 37 years. Its failure communicates as much about society as its success.
Ruined space is ripe with transgressive and transcendent possibilities… They offer opportunities for challenging and deconstructing the imprint of power on the city. Tim Edensor.
There is a real generosity of spirit in this building, it is respectful of the residents’ original suggestions and it is built to the highest quality. Many in the architectural fraternity mark this period as the last when the architect, rather than the developer, led the project.
Many of the original residents of the Sirius would not have had, even beside the harbour views, any of its comforts before — from modern plumbing to new kitchens.
The last resident, a 90-year-old blind woman known as Myra Demetriou, was forced to pack her bags in January of 2018.
Myra Demetriou became the face of the campaign to save the historic housing block.
The social housing apartments were unanimously recommended for protection by the Heritage Council, but the Government had ignored that advice, putting the building up for sale to developers.
“It’s so ridiculous, I don’t know who they think they are. They say they need the money — they need the money like a hole in the head.”
In May of 2018 the Syrius officially hit the market, with a price tag north of $120 million. It was described as “Australia’s most valuable freehold land”, according to the international sales campaign that was kicked off by Savills Australia.

It Could All Have Been Avoided

The Responsible NSW Minister Pru Goward
There were already 60 empty houses at Millers Point when the pogrom began.
Most of those houses have yet to be sold.
Yet the State Government has mounted a determined effort to move the old public housing tenants on, uniting a once divided “community” whilst creating a wave of sympathetic media coverage.
Prior to the then Housing Minister Pru Goward’s announcement of the sell-off there were three community groups dedicated to fighting the rumoured sale of the suburb.
The sight of the scheduled six-star casino Barangaroo rising from the mud literally at the end of their streets was laying a deep unrest.
But none of the warring community groups could agree on tactics and no one had a good word to say about anyone else. That is the reality of the disenfranchised on housing estates. They squabble.
Then Pru Goward came along.
The groups united against a common enemy; and despite limited resources ran a brilliant social media and street protest campaign.
The media was on-side; and the organisers gave them all the material they needed to write “brutal conservative government attacks working class community” stories.
From overseas research uncovered in a standard literature search in their Social Impact Assessment, the NSW Government knew that resettling an elderly population, as at Millers Point, would lead to increased morbidity rates.
Key details were removed, including quotes from a Scandinavian longitudinal study that risk of death in urban renewal was ‘’one important implication we want to emphasise’’.
As The Sydney Morning Herald recorded:
The NSW government ignored warnings that moving elderly residents from Millers Point would increase their risk of death, and an official report was altered to downplay the potentially deadly effect of the public housing sell-off.
Documents obtained by independent Sydney MP Alex Greenwich under freedom of information laws show warnings about an increased risk of death were either removed or altered in a social impact assessment, commissioned by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation.
In other words, Pru Goward knew perfectly well that some people were likely to die as a result of policies she implemented, first in her role as NSW Housing Minister, then in her role as Planning Minister.
How does that not make her culpable? How is the work of her lieutenants in attempting to conceal the research from the public not a breach of the legislation controlling the behaviour of public servants?
Did Goward have the grace, dignity or plain old-fashioned common decency to come down to Millers Point and tell the people who lived there why their lives were being so mercilessly disrupted? To explain to them why it was important that their homes be sold from under them?
Of course not.
Did the then Leader of the Opposition John Robertson, whose party initiated the sell-off, stoop so low as to try and shore up votes amongst the beleaguered elderly; to come down to the Harry Jensen Community Centre in Argyle Place to assure them that the Labor Party would do all it could to help them.
Of course he did.

Housos with Million Dollar Views

Beyond providing a case study in appalling media management, for what not to do if you’re a departmental media masseur, there is much to be learnt from the debacle at Millers Point. In a sense it was a microcosm of all that is wrong with public housing in NSW.
Some of the people in this cluster of homes had never so much as swept their floors from the day they moved in.
They didn’t value the properties because they had no value.
They live next to one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, but barely ever so much as look at it.
Housos with million dollar views” blared the headlines.
Some of them barely raised their eyes.
But whatever went wrong in their lives back then, back when, the people hosed out of the Rocks were leaving with nothing but their own bitterness, disillusion and sense of loss; despite the decades that some of them have lived there.
It was unfair on them. It was unfair all round.
The state government’s latter-day policy of dumping the mentally ill into Millers Point, rather than finding them appropriate accommodation, exacerbated the difficulties in the area.
For years the elderly had not felt safe outside their own homes. it was deliberate. They wanted these people out.
Public housing was meant to be a step up out of poverty, a way for working class families to get onto their feet and get into the private market, to better themselves. The people shuffled on from the Rocks were no better off than when they arrived. Public housing hadn’t lifted them up; it had barely worked to maintain them in a slowly deteriorating state.
It is in the housing estates that the rhetoric concerning the poor and the vulnerable creates a race to the bottom. It is here that the destructive rhetoric of victimhood has had its worst impacts.
There has to be a way where all the negatives of public housing estates, the concentrations of “social disadvantage”, their unsafe nature, the lack of care that the tenants take in their properties, the criminality and appalling malaise that characterises so many of them, could be turned around.
It is, after all, taxpayers’ money; and the taxpayer is entitled to expect that their money is being spent improving the lives of others, not making them worse.
One banner flying from a terrace balcony reads: “Why should only the Rich Live in the City? Working People Need Homes Here Too.”
But in truth a significant number of the people who inhabited Millers Point had little historic connection, they just happened to have washed up there on the tides of fortune.
The upwardly grasping middle classes who thronged the Rocks at the weekend, admiring, above all else, the real estate, often asked loudly as they eyed the less salubrious local housing tenants: “How do they do it?”
The answer was easy enough. People usually end up in public housing because something has gone badly wrong in their lives.
While the mythologising of a local “community” with historical links to the area struck a chord with many Sydneysiders, there were many who ended up in Millers Point by happenstance.
Apart from a few happy drunks at the bus stops, who made easy material for time-poor journalists, the flotsam and jetsam of misfits, the mentally ill and the dysfunctional also made up a significant percentage of the Millers Point population, but were ignored in the public narrative.

Manic Mansions

Yet another slate in the largely unwritten history of Sydney’s underclass was being wiped clean, without any documentation to prove who they were, or why they were.
These sometimes demented souls.
One of the apartment blocks, known not so affectionately as Manic Mansions, was inhabited by aging alcoholics, addicts, schizophrenics, squatters and ex-cons.
Wave a few hundred million dollars in front of developers and governments see what happens.
In 2014, Manic Mansions was already being emptied.
The squatter was made homeless with the assistance of the police.
The ground-floor alcoholic, whose windows had long been smashed and his doors broken, who hadn’t had the electricity on or paid rent in years, was relocated.
One of the building’s “Methadonians”, whose biggest task of the day was to make it to the Clinic to get his dose, was shifted on to housing in Surrey Hills. His old apartment remains empty.
Stimulated by the squatting actions by community activists, patrolling security guards checked the vacant apartments regularly.
A banner, only half unfurled, hung from one of the windows: “Save Our…”
A former bright, bubbly, successful union lawyer on the third floor had a three bedroom apartment with million-dollar views of the harbour all to herself.
Her downward slide had begun many years before.
She was found one New Year’s morning bashed at the bottom of the stairs, too drunk to move.
The author helped persuade her to get into an ambulance.
“Death can’t come soon enough,” she would say often enough.
She got her wish in 2018, four years on, at the age of 56.
By then all the former residents of Manic Mansions had been dispersed. The building itself was boarded up, with a development application stuck on the hoarding outside.
And the people who once lived there were, in a very real sense, little more than memories.

This is My Home

Number 11 Lower Fort Street, a grand Victorian Terrace known as Ballara, has five bedrooms and three bathrooms.
It is a double fronted four story terrace tucked in next to the southern end of the Harbour Bridge has views across to the Opera House from its front windows, and from the back views across to the yacht dotted Lavender Bay.
There is a jacaranda tree in the large backyard, and the views across to Luna Park are only partially obscured by Pier One.
It is a pleasant, easy walk to the Opera House, the Sydney Theatre and Dance Companies, the cafes dotting the finger wharves along Hickson Road and a number of fine dining establishments. In other words, in a real estate obsessed Sydney, it’s just about impossible to get a better location. And it can’t be built out.
Just up the private lane at the rear of these spectacular houses, spelt out in adjoining t-shirts hanging on a clothing line, are the words:
As the protestors and squatters disappeared, the $3.9 million Number 11 Lower Fort Street fetched at auction in mid-September of 2014 came to be seen as a bargain.
If one thinks of the houses as living creatures, they are better off being sold to people who have the financial resources to care for them, who will appreciate them.
But one of the savage ironies of the sell-off of Millers Point is that the prices they fetched, for some of the most stunning real estate in the country, is a comparative pittance to what could have been achieved with an orderly, dignified, civilised sell-off.


Millers Point is quiet now, gentrification well under way.
The street crazies who spent their days moving garbage bins from one block to another, for no apparent purpose, or rustling up the energy to go rob someone in the city, are all gone.
The drunks who once gathered in protective groups no longer seek shelter at the bus stop have been moved on.
In the heart of the district, the Harry Jensen Community Centre no longer serves lunch for elderly residents.
A new community of the wealthy, ensconced in some of the best real estate in Sydney, have no need of welfare workers and humble $6 meals. Housing activists no longer use the hall for meetings.
But across Miller’s Point’s rich history, 2014 will go down as one of its most shameful episodes, with Planning Minister Pru Goward front and centre.
If you ever wondered where the heart of the NSW Government lies:
In 2017 Ms Goward was appointed NSW Minister for Social Housing.

John Stapleton worked as a staff reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald from 1986–1994 and for The Australian from 1994–2009. He has written many hundreds of newspaper stories centred in and around Sydney.
Tim Ritchie work at ABC Radio for more than 40 years, and still works in audio as Head of Podcast for The Parent Brand. He cycles each day from 4am and takes photos of Sydney empty, chronicling the changes.