The Godfather: Peter Corris on moving north
Our decision to move from Melbourne to Sydney early in 1976 seemed impulsive to some but it was not ill-considered. While Melbourne might have been the Mecca for theatre and music, Sydney seemed to be the place for fiction writing and journalism. Moorhouse, Wilding and others were leading a short-story bandwagon, Tom Kenneally was increasingly popular and the National Times and Nation Review were powerful organs of opinion and outlets for adventurous writers. I had given up academia and was trying to write fiction; Jean also had writing ambitions and her skills as a teacher of English as a second language and as a journalist were transportable. We sold our Melbourne house, giving us a sizeable deposit in hand to buy in Sydney, then a little behind Melbourne in what was to become the gentrification and transformation of the inner cities. It seemed the time to take the step.
We did a recce. With the loan of a car from a friend (perhaps the model for Cliff’s Falcon in the first Hardy book The Dying Trade , then scarcely begun), we set off with our two kids in tow and a friend who had arranged a place for us to stay for a time in Forest Lodge. We shared the driving and made the run in one hop.
We spent a couple of weeks looking at the bottom end of the market and saw some sad sights – neglected properties and neglected people. We eventually found a house within our price range in Wigram Road, Forest Lodge. The financial uncertainty that had partly, lamentably, caused the end of the Whitlam government had passed and banks were lending. We had an above average deposit and spun a tale – that Jean was guaranteed work at TAFE and that I was optimistic of an appointment at Macquarie University. We got a Commonwealth Bank mortgage and bought the house.
Then it was back to Melbourne to arrange the move. We packed, the removalists departed and we followed. We had two children aged seven and three and two cats, all packed into an old and far from reliable Mini Minor. Always cack-handed, I had trouble affixing a roof rack and was unsure that I’d done it properly. The car was chock-a-block. The old, unimproved Hume Highway was no picnic with cars and huge trucks jostling for space. We stopped at Tarcutta, the halfway point, concealed the cats in the car and spent a nervous night at a motel. We arrived at Wigram Road the following day, just ahead of the removalists, and took possession. The two-storey terrace had been occupied by an elderly man and his wheelchair-bound son. Understandably, it had fallen into disrepair. It needed painting inside and out, the removal of an interior wall, floor repairs and carpeting.
Although we had requested that the copious rubbish be removed, this had been only half done and I remember us throwing piles of decayed newspapers, heaps of mouldy bedding and pieces of broken furniture out the back window into the insalubrious back courtyard.
After an exhausting day, Jean prepared a meal and I went upstairs for a shower. All of the shower water fell down through rotten floorboards onto the table below, set with food. The pipes from the bath had been bound up with rags and it had clearly not been used for years. A stinking mess resulted.
With neither of us employed, the expense of the move and the mortgage were starting to bite. Money was very short and we called on friends to help get the house into shape at mates’ rates: particularly to remove an unhelpful wall in the living room. I asked them how they’d go about it and one said, ‘Big ’ammer!’
This was done but the flooring was a problem. When cracked and friable lino and rotting newspapers were pulled up in one room, sections of the floorboards came up too and earth that had not seen the light of day that century was exposed. A carpenter friend set to with pine boards and performed the mysterious crimping and fitting of tongue and groove timber that only craftspeople can muster. To be honest, a few soft spots remained when we carpeted with the cheapest material available.
Jean and I painted the inside over many days, enjoying the Sydney summer and the pizzazz of radio Double J. While painting outside I slid down the long length of a high ladder and tore a gash in my leg. I bear the scar to this day.
I got a Bankcard and used the credit to finance an indoor lavatory. To my shame I demolished the iconic outdoor dunny and used the result to brick the courtyard.
Our older daughter went to the excellent Forest Lodge primary school and the younger to a crèche in Erskineville, childcare being more affordable in those days. Jean got part-time work teaching and I signed on for what was known as ‘the professional dole’. It was a mark of the times that, if you had professional qualifications, you were treated differently from the unskilled. Periodically I had to report to a pleasant office in the city, replete with soft music, comfortable chairs and magazines. When I was summoned as ‘Dr Corris’, I was informed that, regrettably, there were no positions for professional historians available and sent on my way with my payment assured for another month.
And so we adapted ourselves to the Sydney lifestyle: the weather, the beaches, the late-opening pubs. I was reviewing for several newspapers and magazines, writing short stories with varying success and tapping away at what was to become, four years later, The Dying Trade.
Gradually we made friends and contacts with the sorts of progressive, creative people we’d known in Melbourne – it took time, because Sydney was cliquey.
I often had to go in person to a newspaper or magazine to collect my reviewing cheque because a delay in the post was troublesome. We sometimes had to borrow money and more than once we dug in the upholstery of the car for five- and ten-cent pieces to buy the morning milk. But we never – well, seldom – doubted that our move to Sydney was a success and that better things lay in store.