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PacificEdge | March 28, 2017

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What became of Bill?

IT’S STRANGE HOW the mention of a name can suddenly take you back to something in your past. So it was that an online conversation on the Lost Sydney Facebook took me back to the Sydney of the late 1960s.

The flashback happened during a conversation about Sunday afternoons in the Sydney Domain at the time. The Domain was a ‘speakers corner’ when those with a strong voice and a tolerance for hecklers would sound off on whatever they put their mind and mouth to, usually politics and religion.

One of these characters was known as Bill the Anarchist, who one of the Facebook respondents identified as Bill Dwyer. He was a tall man who must have been in his thirties at the time, the late 1960s, though when you recall something from that long ago guessing age is something of a risky business. It wasn’t something that I did at the time anyway, which just adds to the margin for error in my guess.

Bill wore a neatly trimmed beard, as I recall, but that wasn’t the striking thing about his appearance. His uniform was. At a time when The Beatles’ Sergaent Peppers album was still fresh in the minds of youth, Bill wore a uniform reminescent, though far less colourful, that those The Beatles wore in their album photo. His was dark blue with a stripe down the leg. Whenever I saw him on the street he would stride along in a quite purposeful way as if engaged in business of the utmost importance.

Bill had a basement just off Oxford Street in Paddington… I don’t know if he lived there but it was something of a free space for the city’s counterculture types. This was The Cellar, and one of the Facebook correspondents said that some very strange things went on down there.

I recall being there only once, with a young blonde woman called Deborah. Like the other 30 or so, we stayed all night, sort of a group sleep-in. Deborah was a northside girl who lived with her mother in an apartment somewhere on the Lower North Shore. She claimed to be Jewish but, if so, was of the nonreligious branch. Our part time relationship was of the decidedly desultory type but she didn’t have to be so unpleasant after we went our ways… my doing, I have to admit. I recall her telling me how her mother discovered she was having another desultory relationship… with her mother’s boyfriend. Something like burning the amourous candle at both ends I guess, and something I thought unlikely to do much to improve the mother/daughter relationship.

The last time I think I saw Deborah or a somewhat plumper look-alike—she didn’t notice me—was years later at a Hobart Regatta Day holiday festival on the banks of the Derwent. She was going one way and I the opposite, so I didn’t have time to surrupticiously look to see if it really was her and I’m not sure I wanted to anyway as I had left life when we knew each other in far away Sydney well and truly behind. But if it was her, how she came to be down there, and why, was something I asked myself for some time after. But this is not about Deborah, though I hope things worked out well for her, it’s about Bill the Anarchist and those times in Sydney, of which Deborah was a small part.

I have no recollection of Bill after that overnighter but I guess I did encounter him at The Domain and around about the place. One of the Lost Sydney correspondents said they think he went to the UK and had something to do with organising the Reeding Free Festival, I think it was.

These were what we might call the psychedelic years and they were fueled by the finest acid concoctions a home lab could produce as well as by the infamous illicit weed. As these things do it spawned an art movement and the wonderful neo-Art Norveau rock music posters, the music of the US West Coast rock scene and the assorted paraphenalia worn by US hippies and outlaws trickled its way to our shores.

All of this cultural stuff you could pick up from this psychedelic shop started by some hip entrepreneur not far from Taylor Square in Darlinghurst. I have no idea of the name of this shop, but in it were the wonderful cultural artefacts of the movement… posters, trinkets, clothing, whatever. Somewhere in the vicnity, perhaps closer to the city, was a music venue which would crank into action weekend nights. It had the whole deal – moving coloured lights playing across the wall, gell-filled slides projecting amorphous, lava lamp lookalike lightshow shapes that moved in time with the minds of those there, and, of course, the music.

Lost Sydney—it’s not all lost—first hand knowledge of our time is still out there and every so often it comes to life on the Facebook of that name. Reading it demonstrates how selective memory is—people call it ’patchy’ – but it’s there in the convolutions of the brain and all it takes to prise it out is the trigger of a word. Lost Sydney is collective memory—we recall part of something, an event, a place, people—and put it together with the bits that others remember and so synthesise an understanding based on personal recollection and that imbibed from others. It’s a good process.

It leaves me with a sense of continuity too, a link between the now and the people I and my friends were in those times. This is a good feeling and it heals the sense of fracture that modern living with all its chaos and churn leaves us with.

When I think back onto the past I shared with my friends I often wonder what became of the people we encountered. I know what became of some of those who were my friends then, but when those overnighters and visitors to The Cellar walked away for the last time, where did they go and how did life turn out for them? Do they ever look back on those days and think about them? Do they recall Bill the Anarchist and how do they think of him now?And – the question – what became of Bill the Anarchist, the man in the dark blue uniform?

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