The Godfather: Peter Corris on glorious Glebe
Our third daughter was born early in 1977. I had a vasectomy to forestall any more children but our Wigram Road house seemed cramped with five people, a dog, the magnificent kelpie/border collie cross, Jim, that I’ve written about before, and the cats. Jean noticed a newspaper advertisement (this was long before the Internet dominated real-estate offerings) for what was described as a ‘mansion’ in Leichhardt Street, Glebe, and we took a look. Whether it qualified as a mansion or not it was certainly big – a wide two-storey terrace, one of a pair set on a deep block. The street was pleasant and leafy with a mix of large and small houses, including one that certainly was a mansion and had been owned by the art historian Bernard Smith.
To most buyers, however, the property presented problems. Although it had six bedrooms, it had been used as a boarding house and none of the rooms was large or particularly well-windowed. Each room had coin-operated gas meters for heating, which would have to be removed. The kitchen was pokey; the living room just adequate. But there was an imposing wide staircase. The upstairs room in front was huge, incorporating a built-in balcony, and downstairs a kind of cellar room was an ideal study for me. Space enough, we thought, with a deep, wide back yard, an out-of-control garden for Jim and that thing most prized by Sydney house buyers – a water view from the the rear of the house. Even though it was somewhat restricted by two blocks of flats it was, if not a panorama, certainly much more than a glimpse of Blackwattle Bay.
House buying in those days, if the purchaser had a respectable deposit, was much easier than it later became. We displayed an interest to the agent, put the word out that we were interested in selling Wigram Road, and were lucky enough to find buyers without having to pay an agent – an academic couple newly arrived from England to take up an appointment and in funds. We sold for far more than we had paid, with the gentrification of the area gaining steam, and emerged with enough to buy the ‘mansion’ with the help of an interest-only loan, the theory being that in time the increased value would enable the negotiation of a more favourable arrangement. I was still unemployed, still getting by on freelance reviewing; Jean was only working part-time, which meant that a straight mortgage for the money needed was out of reach.
We took the plunge.
We engaged a colourful Glebe identity, Tom Laming, to do the removal. Tom had been a well-credentialled middleweight boxer in the 1950s, who had lost twice to the best Australian fighter of the period and one of my idols – Dave Sands. Tom paid for a memorial to Sands, who died young in a truck accident in 1952, which still stands where Glebe Point Road meets Broadway. He owned the vast second-hand goods store, the Dealatorium, in Glebe Point Road and ran a boxing gym above the shop.* (I interviewed Tom later for my history of boxing in Australia, Lords of the Ring, published in1980, and we had a rapport. By this time he was massively overweight, neglecting his diabetes – so was I, another point of contact – but obliging.)
When he and his team arrived at Leichhardt Street they faced a problem. The house was firmly locked and the keys did not answer. Not a problem for Tom; an entry was forced and the unloading began.
This was shortly before Christmas. On Christmas Day we had two friends for lunch. Seven people in the house and the single toilet backed up. The roots of the huge camphor laurel tree in the back garden had infested the sewer. The blockage could not be cleared for a week or so. How we coped I’ve forgotten – buckets, perhaps? Holes dug?
Jubilee Park was just across the way. It wasn’t the sculpted place it is now but had chandlers’ shops and slipways along the Blackwattle shore and it was an attractive breathing space. The two younger children went to a crèche situated in the park. I took to jogging there with results both good and bad.
Glebe was then something like what Paddington was and what Newtown would become, with a mixture of the affluent and the down and out; the artists, writers, filmmakers and persons of doubtful repute. Jean was teaching and writing. I was writing and, as I’ve written elsewhere, Anne Summers invited me to become the literary editor of the National Times. We slotted in, made new friends, stayed in touch with old ones and had successful parties in the rambling, shabby house.
Jean’s story collection, Country Girl Again, would be published in 1979 to good reviews and she had plans for a novel. I was on track for a three-book year in 1980. Health and emotional problems were just around the corner, but for now we felt we had consolidated ourselves in Tinsel Town, and I began to joke that I was a naturalisd New South Welshman.
* The Dealatorium site is now occupied by the much-awarded Gleebooks.