Merrylands (Unfinished Business)

In a dream earlier in the week I was having a strange time in a hitherto undiscovered area of Sydney where all the suburb names began with M. Taking this as inspiration for my next library, I looked through my list of Sydney libraries and decided on Merrylands. It seemed to carry on from Sans Souci – places with hopeful names.

Also I had some unfinished business in Merrylands, outstanding from my Vinnies project. The Merrylands store was the only Vinnies I could not find back in 1999, and so before I went to the library I felt the urge to look for this store again. The only time I’d been to Merrylands was this unlucky trip to try and find the Vinnies. I remember walking up and down the main road looking forlornly at the place where the Vinnies was meant to be.

On the train to Merrylands I watched the shops and houses slip by outside. Not having a car or even a driver’s licence, my travels around Sydney involve a lot of looking out windows and a lot of waiting. I sit and let my thoughts float. The view was familiar to me until the train left Granville and turned onto the south line to Glenfield. Just before Clyde station the tracks go over a river. On the tall trees lining the river hung thousands of flying foxes, like big, black seedpods. It was beautiful and grotesque to see them hanging there asleep in the sunny morning.

At Merrylands I followed the crowd out of the station and stood at the street corner, near a group of loud, loitering teenagers. I got my street directory out of my bag and looked up Pitt st, the street on which Vinnies is located. I felt like a great anachronism, with my map book and 70s cardigan. This time I’d avoided wearing anything too outlandish, like the all green outfit that caused such a stir in the south west. Nevertheless I still looked as if I was from somewhere else in time, like it was the 1940s and I was going out to dig up potatoes at my allottment.

The Vinnies was at a different address to the one listed in 1999, and I spotted it as soon as I came to the next crossing, near the Centrelink. It was with great satisfaction I entered the store and started looking around. There was little of interest until I came to the videos. The VHS sections of op shops are currently rich with interesting films, as people jettison their VHS collections. To go with the cardigans and the street directory, I also still have a VCR, so VHS tapes are not dead media to me! I looked along the spines of the videos before stopping at a copy of SICK: The life and death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist. “Oh yes!” I hissed, in an uncharacteristicly vocal outburst. I’d been looking for this film for years.

It is one of my favourite documentaries. Bob Flanagan was an artist and writer whose work was autobiographical, drawing on his illness, Cystic Fibrosis, and his sexuality, practising S&M, and the relationship between the two. The film was released in 1997, the year after Bob Flanagan’s death, and I saw it about five years later. It stuck in my head and I have continued to think of moments of it often. Bob Flanagan agreed to make the film – which is remarkably honest and personal for a biography, the filmmaker has no veneer of distance or authority – on the condition that it documented his death. It’s these scenes, rather than the ones of him nailing his penis to a board, which stayed with me. I found it impossible not to like Flanagan, with his catalogue of perversions and chirpy songs about masochism. Although throughout the film we know he is going to die, it seems impossible until it happens. This mirrors Flanagan’s relationship with death, as he spent his whole life struggling with Cystic Fibrosis, a disease with which an early death is inevitable.

My only problem was this: would I have the nerve to buy it from the op shop lady? I looked over to the counter. A little old lady with tight white curly hair and a serious expression tidied the jewellery section under the counter. There was nothing for it but to be brave. I put the hot pink, THE FILM THEY TRIED TO BAN cover down on the counter. “Just this please.” She quickly stuffed it into a plastic bag and asked for $2, in such a way that I knew she disapproved. It was like buying a S&M movie from my grandmother. I gave her the coins and made a quick retreat with my prize.

With the revival of any period in time, it is interesting to me what gets noticed and what gets left out. While some aspects of underground culture from the 90s are now well known, there is plenty that has not, and may never be rediscovered, despite the vast catalogue that is the internet. This is perhaps in some cases a good thing! But it is interesting to think of what information persists in culture, and what slips away. This is where libraries and op shops come in: they are full of cultural debris that you can’t assume is duplicated on the internet. I’m talking in general here: there is plenty of information about Bob Flanagan and the documentary online that I could have sought out if I wanted to. But I didn’t realise I wanted to see the film again until it was physically in front of me. A relic from a Bondi video store, washed up in a Merrylands op shop, and now my lucky charm for the rest of the day. I set out for the library with great optimism.

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