I arrived at “Darren’s Backyard” just before five. A band was setting up to play. This was Caxton. I weaved through the cool nerdy rocker kids shuffling about on the gravel until I spotted Vanessa. I’ve never met Vanessa, but I recognised her face from her Flickr site. It was a bit like a blind date, but without the sub-plot of romance. Don’t get me wrong – it certainly is romantic to meet someone for the first time whose work you have long admired. Vanessa is something of a legend in the zine world, and I’m a big fan of her obsessive writing projects. So it was super flattering to get her email saying she’d been following my blog, and inviting me to this backyard gig. I guess it must be a bit like this for people who “meet” online and then travel halfway across the globe to eyeball each other in the flesh. All the standard mini anxious anticipations apply: What will she think of me? Will I be able to live up to the online persona I’ve constructed? Will there be misunderstandings as to our intentions vis-a-vis romance? etc etc.
But in this case, Vanessa and I seemed to get along very well immediately. She’s got a dry dry wit, which could lean towards cynicism, if it wasn’t coupled with her obsessive enthusiasms for tiny, seemingly insignificant detail. For instance, one of her famous zines is about the 23rd day of the month. Each and every month, she would write, at exhaustive length, about what she did, down to the finest banalities, on the 23rd day. This zine, “Laughter and the Sound of Teacups,” ran for five years. In another project, she collected shopping lists found dropped from trolleys in supermarkets or on the side of the road, and constructed elaborate imagined narratives about the lives of these shoppers. Since she moved to Petersham, she’s been researching Parramatta Road, circa 1976. Apparently this was a time of great urban upheaval. And so she’s going to take me on time-travel-tour, back thirty years, this coming Thursday. “I hope I have my outfit and clipboard ready by then,” she said.
Vanessa seems to like carefully assembled chunks of communication. Her very sentences are crafted bullets of humorous content, delivered with deliberately chosen phrasing. She told me that, in fact, the email she had sent me was not her first attempt at making contact. No: she had composed a note, found out my address, and posted it in my letter box. For some reason, I never found the note. Did she really write it? Is this all just a fantasy she has created? But the writing and hand-posting of a note certainly would seem to be in keeping with her obsessive, precise way of doing things – not to mention her preference for the physical over the virtual. So where did that piece of paper end up? Vanessa said she still has the first draft (!), and she will try to recreate the note for me.
My conversation with Vanessa was carried out while we listened to Caxton play. They’re a fun, keyboard led band with a saxophone section. They seem to be quite serious about what they do – the stage was littered with metal stands holding sheet music. It was an intimate gig. Vanessa introduced me to Darren, the host. He’s only recently moved to Petersham, but this is about the fifteenth gig he’s produced in various backyards around Sydney. I told Darren I wasn’t leaving Petersham for all April and May. “Oh, that’s YOU!” he said. He invited me to come back and hang out, any time. Just knock on the door.
Vanessa had to run off to another party, some sort of sailor theme, for which she had the “perfect” outfit all lined up. Damien arrived just as the Triangles were starting their set. They’d come all the way from Melbourne for this one gig. “Hello Peters-Ham!!” they cheered! The drummer asked the crowd if this was the right pronunciation. We set them straight.
(Come to think of it, why don’t we pronounce it like “the ham which belongs to Peter?” Surely “Ham” is from “hamlet” meaning small village. “Sham,” on the other hand, means nothing. Is this just an Aussie bastardisation? Or am I wrong? I will email the good folks of Richmond, England, and see how they pronounce their Petersham…)
The Triangles look like they really like each other. All the band members sing, their lyrics are funny, and they even have a song about margarine. Damien and I sat down in a fragrant patch of rosemary towards the front of the crowd, blowing bubbles for some kids, who were trying to pop them as fast as they could come out of the bubble pipe. After the gig I went and introduced myself to the band, and asked if we could have a photo together. Damien took the snap. It came out perfect: a terrific, typical, bad “fan with the band” photo. “This is the best gig we’ve ever done in Petersham,” said the drummer (on the right).
Damien and I drifted over to the bowling club, where we were a little late for the Moroccan feast. A table of seven friends had already assembled. Fiona had made labna, savoury pastries, a delicious dip, olives, chick pea tagine, and a curious doublemeat combination for the non-vegetarians. Then dates, baklava, turkish delight. The club was as warm and convivial as ever. You feel like the people cooking, pouring beer, serving tables, are doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. The whole thing totters between homely and hokey, and yet still maintains a sense of quality. I may have said this before, but the place really does, in fact, feel like a “club” and not just a business. Of course, they are on the verge of bankruptcy…It’s funny to begin to feel “local” there, when my first visit was only a few weeks ago. Now it’s for others to be amazed by the badge board, the carpet, the “Bad Language will NOT be Tolerated” sign, the vintage poker machines, the deceased estate equipment for bowling downstairs…
Towards the end of dinner, when we were onto the turkish delight, a lady called Jo came and introduced herself. She’s on the board of the club, and was wondering if she could talk to me for a second. I excused myself from our table and went with her. She was sitting with John, Sally, and Roberta. The club wants to enter a competition to get ABC radio to come out and do a broadcast live from the Bowlo. And they were wondering if I had any ideas. Basically, what happens is, this DJ called James O’Loghlin comes out to “your living room, your community centre, your social club” etc, and runs a whole three hour show from there. You provide “local talent”, musical acts, activities, games, etc. So what they’re thinking is that the club is the perfect spot, and Petersham the perfect locality, to coax James out here.
I suggested a few leads I thought we could follow up, vis-a-vis local talent: like the guy who runs the collectible toy store up on Stanmore road, and is a seasoned Michael Jackson impersonator. Or Anthony, from the Liquor store, who has a host of amazing stories about the history of New Canterbury Road. We could rope in the visiting Filipino artists, who’ll be here from the 9th of May. And there’s always the enthusiast on John Street. Apparently this guy reckons that Petersham is the best suburb in the whole world. I must follow up on that. Jo and Roberta liked these ideas. Part of their project is to disprove the recent media reports about Sydney’s Inner-west being the most unhappy place in Australia. It turns out all four of them – John, Sally, Roberta, and Jo – live on Searl Street. I’m thinking Searl Street is a pretty special place…
In the meantime, my table had cleared out. The stragglers were outside bowling. We were joined by Max and Antoinette, who brought along some West Papuans to try their hands at bowling. These guys – Titus, Patianus, and Arvo – were in Sydney for a few days for a flag raising stunt in front of the Indonesian Embassy. They were surprisingly good at bowls.
Damien joked, “That’s it – now their demands will increase: Independence, and Bowling For All.”