The Godfather: Peter Corris on his first sea change
For many people a geographical shift from Melbourne to Sydney would be enough to last a lifetime but it wasn’t so for Jean and me. In our time together we have made several such moves, some of even greater distances – such as from the Illawarra to an island in Moreton Bay, Queensland.
After three years in Sydney, from 1976 to 1979, a combination of restlessness and financial opportunity prompted another major move. The price of houses in the inner west was rising exponentially and we had a fair degree of equity in the house we had in Glebe. It seemed possible to cash in, buy cheap and live mortgage-free somewhere out of Sydney.
This was an attractive prospect because I was only working part-time at journalism and Jean was teaching part-time – we had three children and a pretty low combined income. We made a sortie north to look at coast houses but found the drive onerous and nothing that attracted us.
A friend had introduced us to a couple who were living in the Illawarra. We visited them in Austinmer and were amazed to find such attractive beaches and comparatively cheap property so close to Sydney. I’ve never forgotten my first sight of the dramatic sweep of the coastline visible from Stanwell Tops. That helped fix our minds on the Illawarra.
In a conversation touching on the idea of our moving south a friend, who had gone to Thirroul to look at the house DH Lawrence had occupied in 1922, reinforced our awakened interest in the area by adding that, with coal mines in the area in decline, there were miners’ cottages cheaply on the market.
One day Jean made a reconnoitre, taking our six-year-old daughter who was off school with a cold, with her. At Coledale, one town north of Austinmer and two north from Thirroul, she noticed a building on a double corner block fronting onto Lawrence Hargrave Drive. A roughly printed For Sale sign carried a Sydney phone number. The building was long, partly unroofed and in very poor condition, but it stood only short distance from the water, with the escarpment as a dramatic backdrop and it strongly appealed to Jean. She inspected other properties but kept circling back to the Coledale building.
‘Mum,’ our daughter asked, a question that has become famous in the family, ‘why do you keep coming back to look at that old shed?’
Old it certainly was, dating back to around the time of World War I and shed was an apt enough description, although it was a very big shed, more like a large barn. Investigation revealed that it had served various functions – as a boxing venue, a two-up school, a warehouse and store and as the Coledale Rugby League clubhouse. On the adjacent block was a semi-derelict structure that had housed the town’s fire engines.
Like Jean, I was entranced by the place and we set about negotiating to acquire it. The details are somewhat vague to me now, but the owner was willing to sell at a price we could meet through the sale of the Sydney house, and we had to offer an inducement to a person who presently rented the place, an artist who rarely used it.
We bought it and moved in – three kids, a dog and a cat. The building was one large space for most of its length with no rooms other than an area at the back, which apparently had served as a kitchen and eating area and a partly-divided skillion at the side. There was no power, no phone connection and water to the kitchen was supplied by a hose running from an outside tap through an open window. We used tea chests, boxes and bookshelves to partition off temporary sleeping spaces.
Looking back, it was an extraordinary, even reckless, thing to have done but we were young and thrilled by the location. Coledale was only an hour and 40 minutes away from Sydney by train and the station was nearby; the township had an RSL club, a new Leagues club, a bottle shop, a general store and a chemist, and the primary school was only a few hundred metres away on the same side of the road. Coal trucks thundered by all day, lending character to the scene.
Jean’s mother had died not long before and the money she left enabled us to do the necessary renovations – repair the roof, construct four bedrooms and workrooms for both of us in the skillion, build a deck around two sides and install a pot-belly stove and open, hooded fireplace. The most unusual renovation was the removal of a four-man metal urinal, which had to be chiselled out and bent to be extracted.
Jean and I painted the entire structure the ubiquitous Mission Brown, which soaked straight into the old porous wood. The deck received the same treatment and from it we commanded a magnificent view of the water and the Coledale rock shelf and swimming pool.
I spent hours every day for weeks painting the large roof a rich red. We removed what must have been tons of accumulated rubbish from the yard and bought a sheep to help keep the grass down. The kids enrolled at the school and we had friends close by. There was space in the hall area for a table-tennis table and sleeping room for guests.
Friends from Sydney visited often. We played beach cricket and had some fine parties, including one to launch my first Cliff Hardy novel. Among others, Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris came down on the train for lunch.
The sea change – while it lasted – was a glowing success and is a deeply fond memory, for us and the children.