Cyprian Fernandes: My Sydney Diary, Part One


YARNS: My Sydney Diary

Naturally, the Sydney of 1979 was vastly different to what it is today. Many will argue that development and progress has made it a better city. Most senior citizens may argue against that because their world, growing up in predominantly “White Australia”, was a racist life and anyone who was black, especially in country Australia, suffered some of the worst abuses known to society. A similar fate was suffered by Africans or anyone black anywhere in the world. To a lesser degree, new migrants like the Poles, Italians, Portuguese and other Europeans, especially after World War II had their own share of racist scars. But from day one, I never experienced any of the racism and very quickly became part of the journo community, Sydney life in general and made some life long friends along the way.

My work place, the Sydney Morning Herald, was off a short but quite a historical street at the southern end of the CBD called Broadway which morphed into one of the great thoroughfares of the city, George Street, beginning at Central Railway Station and finishing at the northern end of the CBD which is marked by the historical Circular Quay. The Quay is home to all ferries linking various parts of Sydney Harbour. On its left is an area called The Rocks which is home too much of Sydney’s early convict history; today it is a fashionable tourist area with restaurants and cuisines galore. To the far right, sitting magnificently on the edge of the water, is the Opera House. The Sydney Harbour Bridge towers to the left of the Quay.

George Street is one of the busiest streets. Always has been, I am told. I would walk the 100 yards or so from Broadway to George, taking in all novelty of the place. I did that every day during my break, if I did not go to the pub as was the tradition of my journo colleagues. On the days I idled along on my there was one element that kept an eagle eye out for: another brown skinned person. It would be a long time before I would find an Indian. It was even more difficult to find Indian spices … eventually I had to make a safari to the internationally known Bondi Beach and it was there that I discovered Eze Moses, at the time, they only shop that sold the full range of spices. I had already discovered the wonderful Sydney Fish Market. Imagine my delight when my favourite fish monger told me that I could have as much squid I wanted … free, nobody it seems ate this delicacy. I also got some baby squids for nowt unless the Italians beat me to them.

To this day I am still amazed at the quality of meats. Coming from the UK in those days, that was a special treat.

The first pukka Indian I met was Girish Kumar who was in charge of the foreign features section of the paper. Poovirajasingham or Poovi, or Singham … as he was called was a Malaysian on the subbing pool. His ancestors were Indian migrants who were indentured to work on rubber plantations.

It was not long before I discovered the Indian community: they were made of largely doctors, engineers, and various other professional fields. I also discovered the Goan community… mostly from East African and even more mostly from my home town of Nairobi.

Much later, I met Surjeet Singh who owned an Indian restaurant in inner-western suburb of Strathfield. Standing outside his restaurant each day, his glorious turbaned self was something of a curiosity. He nodded and said hello to everyone that passed by. I asked him one day why he did that. He explained: “Well when they come into my restaurant, they see a familiar face.” It was not long before the restaurant was one of the most popular, not only with fellow Indians by Aussies, too, who had had a taste of curry. Surjeet’s elder brother is credited with opening the first curry house in Goulburn Street, in the heart of the Sydney CBD. His young brother built an Indian cuisine catering empire.

Our first home on arriving in Australia in 1979 was a two bedroom rented flat in Summer Hill ... just 10 minutes by bus to my place of work: Fairfax House, home of the mighty broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald, The Sun, Australian Financial Review and various other print productions. Computers were just a year or two away!

Arriving from Leicester in the British Midlands which was still coming to terms with its cremation as a once fabrics manufacturing hub, hence the continued after-gloom of a people quietly attempting to come to grips with life without manufacturing jobs, Summer Hill was really everything its name suggested: a kind of forever summer, even in winter. To say that we loved Summer Hill would be one of the greatest understatements of each of our lives. From our flat, it was just a couple of minutes to the pub, the shops (including a very worthwhile wine bar), the railway station and the tiny Catholic Church and the adjoining school. Further up from our address in Prospect Road was the glam Trinity Grammar private school. Just a few minutes to the West was the more bustling suburb of Ashfield. To the south were the Lewisham and Petersham, very country English and really couple of somewhat genteel gems if that is every possible anywhere in Australia. Our children went to school in Lewisham before they moved to others for their secondary and higher education. Like I said Summer Hill is a delightful place.

The thing about Australia, particularly when you first migrate, is that you learn very quickly that the weekends belong to the children as each parent takes one of the two children in a separate direction for sport, swimming training, dance classes, and a large variety other must-do events. And, of course, time permitting there is always fishing and discovery Sydney.

Then there is Sunday and the first thing on the agenda is Mass on Saturday evening or Sunday morning. And it is in the little Summer Hill church I discovered a local icon with an almost cult following: the Parish Priest Monsignor Leonard. He was tall big man with a reddish receding hairline. In another life he could easily have been an athlete, even a boxer perhaps. In a previous life, Leonard had been pretty high up the Catholic theologian and teaching ranks. An ultra-free speaker for any kind priest, Leonard made his life’s work to examine minutely the invisible fine print on the pages of Catholic doctrine. He particularly reveled in putting under his clinically examining microscope various parts of the Bible or the relevant readings of that particular Saturday or Sunday. The congregation were not a coven of Catholicism bashers or doctrine revels, it was the clarity of Leonards’ often brilliant point of view that had them swooning in the aisles. It was rumoured that Leonards’ sojourn was something of banishment or an exile of sorts, away from innocent ears and Summer Hill was thought to be parish of little or no potential. That did not both Leonard. He had the zeal and dedication of an ultra-fundamentalist (although not utterly in the Word) and he would have probably chosen to have died in midst of celebrating Mass. And he almost did. One Saturday, everyone could see that he was not well at all, something that was confirmed when he collapsed just before Communion. Three or four of rushed to him and tried to take to his nearby living quarters. He would have none of that. Fortunately, someone called for the ambulance and he could not argue with the paramedics. Leonard had suffered a heart attack.

The next day, Sunday, his brother arrived at the church to inform everyone that Leonard had been operated on and was now recuperating but complaining like hell that he was not allowed to return home. He did come back to Summer Hill but fire in his belly had been extinguished and he was much slower and even much thinner man. He died a few years later and the world was definitely poorer for his passing. It seemed as if someone had drawn the curtain on hard-hitting storytelling, especially in a Catholic church. The memory of Leonard never left me. Nor will I ever forget another storyteller: Fr John (Powell) from the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, just outside of Parramatta in Wentworthville, my own parish since 1984.

Fr Anthony Scierri (spent a lot of time in Africa including Kenya, helping set up the Carmelite arm of the priesthood as well as schools) on the other hand is the classical theologian. If you are into the subject then he never fails to delight your ears. However, it is a keen ear that appreciates Fr Anthony for his clinical examination and interpretation of the two testaments of the Bible. He has something of a minor cult following but everyone her meets is full of respect for him.

If Leonard was the sweetest of thunder, then John is the gentlest whisperer. A softly spoken man, an eternal smile carved permanently on his visage, and, if you listen closely, there is always a slightly mischievous chuckle or two be had when he is relating something one-on-one and regularly from the pulpit. The hard drive of his mind is packed with memories of people, events and incidents, mostly charming, even more funny, and some with the solemnity that is usually reserved for the altar. From the pulpit, John is a story teller. He begins his homilies with a yarn every Mass day and he cleverly marries them with the readings of the day. Sometimes, he does get a little carried away, and everybody it seems loves it. That could be in minor compensation for the fact that these days John has earned the reputation for being late, even for Mass. Some clever-Richard once said it was a good thing John was always late, because “he will also be late for his own funeral.” Silly.

John was born in Perth Western Australia. His father was Welsh and mother Iranian (I think he said her name Ana Sina). She and her sister were World War II refugees from Singapore. John’s mother and father saw the fall of Singapore and were part of the general evacuation. John’s dad was a Navy engineer. John went to school in Perth and when he was 16 or 17, he told his father that he wanted to join the Jesuits but his father told him that he was too young to make such a big decision. It was not until he moved to Canberra, as a teacher, that came into contact with the Carmelites, yes, as a teacher and later a priest. (I will try and catch him to pick up on a little more about this delightful man)