THIS WAS THE TENOR OF LIFE at 168. A work-a-day world accented by the conviviality of evenings and weekends. Meals together. The good company of visitors. Interesting people who moved in to share their lives for awhile before continuing their journeys in life.
For most, it was the last experience of communal life before long term partnerships (or a succession of longer-term relationships for some) and families.
It was 1970. The sixties — the decade that through its zaniness and chaos had brought us together — had finally closed. It had been a good decade for most of us, one that had been critical to our growing up as we entered adulthood. In that decade we left school, started working life, discovered the opposite sex, alcohol, a funny weed that when ignited and inhaled could be quite pleasing and, for some of us, the politics of opposition.
It was a decade of self-discovery as that time of life is for all. It coincided with a dynamic period of social change brought by the coming of age of the post-war baby boom generation and the impact of the war in Vietnam. Most of our group at Cathedral Street had avoided that war though my marble had been plucked from the barrel and I had experienced a somewhat amusing army medical reminiscent of the story told in the Arlo Guthrie’s popular recording of the time, Alice’s Restaurant.
It was a good time to be alive and even though daily life could move with obstinate predictability, there was a sense that we were part of something bigger, part of some longer term change in society. What that was remained amorphous, undefined, unarticulated. But it was there.
In retrospect we were a fortunate generation despite the background of the war and the waiting to see if your marble came out of the selective service barrel around the time of your 18th birthday. That was something ever-present in the minds of young men at that time. The war marked our generation in different ways. It was a war that the males of our cohort were likely to be sucked into, yet it was the war and the opposition that developed to it, as it became increasingly unwinnable and unpopular, that brought many young people together. Had there been no Vietnam war, there would have been no 168 Cathedral and none of the long term relationships that came out of those years. In that sense the Vietnam war made us, just as it unmade many of our contemporaries.
The crew that occupied 168 were a mixed bunch mainly from middle class backgrounds, people who were thrown together with a few from working class families. We enjoyed an open attitude to life during those few years we were together. And yes, to some extent we knew we were different to the mainstream in some regards, especially in our attitudes to society and where it might be headed.
It must be acknowledged that for perhaps the majority of young people life followed the steady, predictable path of school, job, marriage, family and convention. Those radicalised by the war, who participated in it or who took part in the strange, confusing and sometimes drugged counterculture were a minority. However, like many who inhabit society’s fringe, those who chose the path of the counterculture were to have an influence beyond their numbers, one that was unimagined at the time and among whose legacy we now live.
It is difficult to describe the feeling of a time without romanticising it. You have to remember the bad with the good, for there is plenty of both, yet perhaps in all but the most traumatic of circumstances it is the good which predominates in memory. Romanticising was not something we did at the time —- we had only little sense of ourselves as something special, only the vaguest sense that we were part of some broader, inexplicable change that was starting to blow through society. Romanticising the past is a consequence of thinking and writing about it at a later date.
I do, however, recall a sense of freshness and openess to new ideas and experience, a welcoming of the world into our lives. In one sense, life at 168 had been lived at the whim of life’s currents and vortices. It was a spontaneous way to live, for sure, but it was an enjoyable one.
The latter part of the sixties and the years of the following decade was a period that would leave its mark on us for years to come, for a lifetime, probably. And for the short time we occupied that old terrace at 168, we stood on the edge of change, because, for us, these were the years of transition in life.
The new decade had snuck in on the fading exuberance of the old. The times that we spent around the Third World Bookshop were gone — even while living at 168 they seemed to recede into a previous age. An unanticipated future lay ahead. That change was happening was palpable and although I recognized its presence I did not spend much time analyzing it.
Had we been able to see it we would have perceived a phase change in our lives, a change from one state of life to another in the way ice changes into water, into a new form but one in which vestiges of its past state continue, and one in which, although different, the present forms a sometimes increasingly tenuous continuum with its past.
The coming of the new decade did indeed mark new phases in the lives of the occupants of 168. Almost a decade before, Dylan had warned us that the times they are a’changing and, just as at that time, what he sang then was once again true. Life, it seemed, was made up of plateaus of statis punctuated by short, confused periods of abrupt change. In time, another punctuation would come but, for us then, the new one had just started.
168 broke up. It’s time was ended. The household went their own ways. Yvonne and Fred found a flat in Maroubra. Later, they would have children, buy a house, love and part. Some time after that, Yvonne would resume a long-running relationship with a special friend of long standing. Time would go on and, many years later and six months after it happened, we would learn that we had lost that mutual friend.
Yvonne would also visit another old friend then living in another state far, far from Sydney. These would be only brief visits but the encounter would keep a deep-lying affection burning below the daily normality. Much later again, Yvonne would spend some years in Asia before returning to a life in the north of the southernmost state of Australia.
Bronwyn and her son, with her new partner Phillip and his children, loaded a flatbed truck with their belongings and took the long road north to the bushland around Cairns. For years she would disappear. Her re-emergence would have to await the birth of a new technology, first email and later Facebook, through which she would rediscover old friends.
Decades after her departure from Sydney on that heavily-laded truck, Bronwyn would write: “Next January it will be 30 years since we moved north. I still love it up here, but I think I could live almost anywhere and be happy.”
Their children long since grown up and moved away, Bronwyn and Phillip now live in Cairns. Rowan, her son who was a babe-in-arms at 168, now has his own family. Some things turn out well.
Before 168 broke up, Paul Shubeck took up new residency, though the grim walls of a prison were poor recompense for the risks he took selling illegal pharmaceuticals in Kings Cross.
Rob continued to work for the Post Office and took early retirement. He lives not far from 168, just up the hill and along the ridge of Potts Point.
Sol, then with her young girl child, now lives in the Inner West. The daughter she was pregnant with at 168, the one that forced her move from the attic to the ground floor room, has long since grown up and now has her own children.
Gary Hyde-Gates was a frequent visitor to 168 and a friend. He went to the UK and left 168 forever. He has not been heard from since. As for Mazz and those others that passed through that old, flaking terrace in Cathedral Street… nothing has been heard.
It was five or six years after our time at 168.
The highway from Hobart to Kingston climbs a low, forested range. At that time, just beyond the crest of the ridge, students of the College of Advanced Education had built a geodesic dome — there was a lot of interest in those structures in the 1970s — it was a large structure conspicuous in its position above the road. From the crest, just before passing that dome, the highway started its descent, falling as a long, straight run towards the coast at Kingston.
One of the past residents of 168 and her partner, an easy-going Englishman, had made the journey to Tasmania where they planned to spend some time. To ease getting around they bought an old Holden car. That day, as they crested the ridge, they must have seen the dome shining in the distance a little further along the road… its white, artificial presence a strong contrast to the olive green of the Eucalypts.
It was a straight road… the climb out of Hobart over the crest and into the long, open downhill run. But somehow, somewhere on that run the car left the road. Only she survived.
It was perhaps eight years later that I again met her. That’s a rough estimate but it must be close to the mark. Our accidental meeting was in Annandale, Sydney, not far from where I was living. We spend an hour or two talking and then, again, she disappeared to return to the intentional community where she had lived the late 1970s. There, I understand she had a couple more children.
I heard nothing of her for many years, then just a few years ago during an email conversation, Yvonne said something that made me sit up with a start. What was that?, I asked. What do you mean? Surprise and the galvanising sensation of shock hit me.
“Didn’t you hear?”, Yvonne responded. “That little girl on the North Coast, near Coffs Harbour? The child that disappeared — surely you heard about it? It was all over the news. She was last seen by the Pacific Highway. They think she was kidnapped. There was a big search. Well… that child that went missing… it was her daughter”.
Many houses now dissipated
There must have been many houses like 168 in those years. Places where disperate people came together for a short period of their lives, where they were influenced by new ideas, did new things, where attitudes were acquired and where the practicalities of living with others were gained.
For that old house we were just another bunch of occupants that passed through and to look back I realise that our time together there was short. But on the timescale of individual lives that brief period was important and it remains in mind as a sometimes vague, sometimes vivid memory. What we experienced of the times we then lived in, and what we learned from each other, was influential. As our time at 168 passed we started out on life’s convoluted paths, but in that old house we made our friendships, some of which have endured.
It is decades later and I am back in Sydney. The train emerges from the tunnel below the Art Gallery and speeds across the viaduct that cuts a swarth across Woolloomooloo. I seldom travel to the eastern suburbs by train, but this time as I look out the window there is the briefest glimpse of an old terrace house, an old house that is still familiar. Seeing it for that brief moment I smile inwardly… all that time ago, all those people with whom I shared my life… they are so dispersed now, gone, some of them.