It can take a long time to get out of Sydney, no matter which way you travel. If you start from the centre and move south west, it is not until hours later that the last housing developments disappear from sight and you have properly escaped. Just before this point, there is Campbelltown.
One of the things I love about travelling into the suburbs by train is watching how the view changes. In this direction the land flattens out and for a while the train line follows the Georges River (boys are fishing off the weir). I watched earthmovers pick at a vast tip, with plastic and debris mixed into the earth, and how the strips of shops became more run down and heavily fortified. As the train passed Minto, I spied this out the window:
It was beautifully deliberate, the collection of faded toy horses on the roof and the neat lines spelling HANK. Who had done this?
There is a library at Minto but I decided to visit the main library in Campbelltown, the HJ Daley Central library. HJ Daley was the ‘clerk with the “velvet fist”‘ who was Campbelltown’s town clerk for 41 years, as I learnt when I clicked on the “Who was H.J Daley?” link on the library website. It was a question I wanted to know the answer to.
Campbelltown is a place that’s aware of its history, well, its colonial history at least, as many of its historic buildings have been preserved. It’s 50 kilometres from the centre of Sydney, further away than some major cities in other countries. Osaka and Kyoto in Japan, for example, are closer than the Sydney CBD and Campbelltown. This distance perhaps gives Campbelltown a stronger sense of its identity as a place, as a settlement or an outpost. Had I been sitting on a plane for the same amount of time I would have alighted in Melbourne, but instead I was pushing my ticket through the gate at Campbelltown station, and starting my walk to the library. I passed a vague and ghostly image of the far away Sydney city:
And a bulky 80s cinema, the letters on the sign decaying, and all tickets $6.
I passed by the crowd at the bus stop where you could catch buses to mysterious places like Appin and Smeaton Grange, and kept walking. I could see the library up ahead. I was too far away to read the sign but I could tell by the architecture, a 90s “villa” style building on a street corner, with a large carpark beside it. Carparks are another feature of these outer suburbs, often covering a greater area than the buildings which they service. For the non-driver, nothing feels more outer suburban than a long walk beside a busy road, or walking across a field, trying not to calculate how much further it is to one’s destination.
Inside the library the displays from History Week were still up. In early September I had intended to visit Hurstville library during History week, as there was an exhibition of cake decorating implements and decorated cakes. That week I came down with a bad cold and could only leaf miserably through my History Week program, until the day came when I was still sick and had missed every event. The decorated cakes would have been packed up and sent back to wherever decorated cakes go.
In Campbelltown library there were three glass cases near the entrance that held different cooking utensils from the past. Signs displayed the slogan “Feast on History”: this year History Week had been food themed. There were some interesting things in the cabinets, an old Smiths crisps box – like a cereal box, which was a nice way for chips to be packaged, I thought. Other items had good names like the “bully beef can opener”, or were pleasingly specific, like the ice cream soda spoons, which were teaspoon in size except for their long handles. Other items were more incongruous:
Toilet roll dolls are something I rarely see in people’s bathrooms, although no doubt people collect them. There has most likely been a “my toilet roll doll collection” spread in Frankie magazine by now. I used to have one, which I inherited from my grandparents’ house. In fact she did come in rather useful sometimes, when the toilet paper ran out and, instead of despairing, I remembered the doll and how she was hiding a spare roll under her skirt. At some point, however, my toilet roll doll disappeared. (Actually I just had to check whether she was still in the bathroom – I have so much stuff it can be hard to keep track of.) She would get dusty sitting there in the bathroom, and I felt kind of sorry for her. Who would want to spend their entire existence in the bathroom? The toilet roll doll always looked cheerful but I imagined her secret identity as a miserable eastern European toilet attendant.
Also on display was a questionnaire which had been asked of various important Campbelltown locals, coupled with their photos. Quite a number of people responded “Rissoles” to “What was your favourite food as a child?”, and my favourite response to “What food did you eat as a child which is not around today?” was:
I imagined this man giving in to his potato scallop craving, only to be disappointed by their stingy size, and wishing he was back in the days of “good” scallops. I have not eaten a potato scallop for a long time. I used to buy them in high school while waiting for the bus home, but only because it was something that other people did, and it seemed like I should do it too. Then, later, I lived in a sharehouse where sometimes we’d drive very late at night to the greasy Somewhere Else takeaway in Glebe to buy half a dozen potato scallops, which we’d been bullied into calling “potato cakes” by our Victorian ringleader, because he had a craving. Now I am confident enough to think for myself, I can admit that I don’t like them. Why not just drink some oil instead?
Campbelltown library is a popular place. Everywhere I looked people were busy. Most of the librarians could be found behind the main desk, which was a circular island at the entrance. Although it was a cool day a pedestal fan was on to one side of the desk. Watching the constant activity of the librarians, being asked for pens, wireless access tickets, checking out books and answering phones, I imagined it could get hot behind there.
Off the main room, which housed the majority of the book collection, was the reference area and the quiet study area. Most of the desks were taken by HSC students studying for their exams. I could tell their exams were soon, because most of them seemed to actually be studying, rather than sending text messages or staring off into the distance. I looked for a desk to sit at. When I found one I realised why the it had been vacant. It was directly in the sight line of the reference librarian, a stern looking man standing behind a computer. All I could see of him was his hair and his glasses. I should not assume his character, he was probably a very nice man. The desk, however, conferred upon him a stern authority. Above his head was a banner: “Good Luck with your exams to all our HSC students from Campbelltown City Library”.
I felt sorry for the studying kids. When looking over their shoulders on the way to my desk I saw their thick pages of notes, and remembered the seemingly endless process of revision required for exams. One boy had a network of boxes on his page, which was filled with tiny handwriting. The subjects I did best in at the HSC were history and maths. For history I drew my entire notes in a kind of hieroglyphic code, a sort of symbolic comic strip. Maths is another language to me now, although this pattern, of my abilities falling in between things, has continued in my life. Zines, for example, are similarly inbetween.
To my right were a group of three girls, and, separated from them by a row of reference books, was a group of three boys. The girls were all wearing matching school jerseys and had their schoolbooks stuffed into their handbags. Their handbags were as big as they could possibly be while still being able to be called handbags. Of all the students, they were doing the least study.
On the other side of the bookcases, the boys were involved in a serious discussion of love and theology. They were a mismatched group. The boy with the loudest voice had long hair and bad acne. He kept fluffing up his hair while saying things like “completing the circle can be done”. Next to him was a guy with his hair tightly cornrowed, who said nothing and just listened to the first guy argue with the third, a boy with short hair and a quiet voice.
I decided I’d move from the study area into the newspaper reading area, which had the papers in a rack and a number of armchairs around a low table. Beside this area was a row of study cubicles, which resembled a row of phone booths. Each was an individual cell for intensive study, and each was occupied. I could see the guy in the end cubicle, hunched forward, not blinking, his face lit up by the fluorescent light above the desk. These cubicles I found rather frightening, a kind of hothouse environment, or a battery farm for students.
The theological discussion was continuing. I could see the boys through a gap above the Australian history books on the shelf between us. I could also see the “Quiet Please” sign hanging above their heads. The loud one was explaining what platonic love was to the quiet one, before moving on to arguing about how “love completes you”. I wondered whether he was one of those students who sounded confident, yet wrote bad essays, or was indeed as assured in his arguments as he made out.
As I sat there listening and observing, a librarian approached and replaced the Sydney Morning Herald on the table in front of me, as if I had been waiting for it. What important world events were happening today?
I was sitting next to the local studies room, which had a big poster for the Fisher’s Ghost festival. The story of Fisher, a farmer who was murdered in the early 19th century, and whose ghost was seen by the creek, pointing to the place where his body had been buried, is a popular local legend. The Fisher’s ghost poster pictured a more Ghostbusters kind of ghost, however. The festival has a street parade in which I hope people dress up as ghosts. I think every year the parade has a different theme, though.
I was tiring of the boys’ discussion and went back out into the main room of the library. Here I followed people around, curious about what books they were in search of. A couple were looking for books about camping. One of them, the man, was one of those guys who is bald but has a thick beard. This kind of upside down business I have always thought to be a strange look. He was less interesting in the camping books, and as he stood there his phone burst out with a piercing ringtone. His conversation on the phone was loud and was sprinkled with “mate”.
I moved off to the seating area in the centre of the library. Here a girl was picking out children’s books for what must have been an early childhood assignment, and showing them to her mum. I had wondered at their relationship, thinking perhaps the older woman was a tutor, but then when I looked closely I saw they had almost exactly the same face. She must have had the assignment to find kids books that were about particular issues, as she was listing topics like “not being able to go to sleep”, and “death of a grandparent”.
Another voice started up, a man on the phone who was having what sounded to be a grim conversation. “… I’ve been depressed…a lot of things on my mind… wasn’t an easy decision… potentially serious and embarrassing…” As hard as I tried, I couldn’t work out exactly what he was talking about. He squatted down in the graphic novel section, a piece of paper with an official letterhead clutched in his hand.
This section of the library was the place where people came to talk on the phone about serious life issues. No sooner had this man finished his call when a woman sat near me and started talking about her job. “I’ll work there if there’s no other choice…” I decided I was in the crisis zone and moved off to the magazine area. It was quieter over there. Like in many other libraries, there was a coffee machine. On the side was a sign that said “All Coffees made fresh from the bean”. I couldn’t imagine using the coffee machine in a library. I would wince as it went through its cycle of noises, and feel too self conscious to enjoy the cup of chicken soup, or “Kaffee au lait” in all its bilingual glory. At the nearby table, however, a man was sitting with an empty takeaway cup in front of him, reading a magazine, so some people must not be as reticent as me.
I walked through the shelves again and noticed a boy wearing a long black coat, looking at the Chinese books. The one he had open had a lot of Chinese characters and the words MAN IN BOX in large letters in the centre. A few shelves along, in the large print section, a woman with a lot of teddy bear key rings hanging off her handbag browsed romance books.
Campbelltown library has a lot of history books and I browsed through these for a while. As I came across the book “Bodies in the Bog” a strong wave of deja vu passed over me and I tried to trace it back to something in particular. No, the feeling stayed weird and rootless. Maybe I had drowned in a peat bog in a previous life. I moved on from this area and picked out a couple of books about English history. The history section was well populated with old books, some of which I couldn’t imagine anyone borrowing. These books, in their red binding, looked and smelled like Bibles, and I had a flashback to my few visits to churches as a child.
Things were getting far too Proustian, so I picked out a few books and headed back to the crisis zone, which had settled down and was quiet again. I opened “Royal Children, 1840-1980” by Celia Clear on the table in front of me and began to read. I have little interest in the British royal family, but I’d picked out this book in the hope of reading about the least well known royal children, the weirdos and weaklings who never made it even close to the throne.
My attention was stolen by a man standing nearby. He was holding a biography of Denis Lillee and looking around for somewhere to sit. He was a bit of an odd man, with his shirt unbuttoned almost the whole way down to his belly, and I wasn’t happy when he sat down in the seat next to me. The four chairs were arranged around a table, so I was in the south chair, while he was in the east, so it wasn’t like he was sitting weirdly close. I just had a suspicion that he wasn’t actually going to read the Dennis Lillee book. I could tell he was using it as a prop.
I was right. After I spent a long time staring at the family tree of the British royal family, trying to work out where Princess Alexandra of Wales fit in, I looked up to see the man holding the Dennis Lillee book up as if he was reading it, with his eyes peeking up over the top. He wasn’t looking at anyone in particular, just looking around the library at everyone sitting reading or browsing the shelves, as if waiting for something to happen. Perhaps I’d worked him out so quickly because he was doing something similar to me.
Not wanting him to notice that I’d seen through his ruse, I started to read the chapter “Darling Motherdear” about Princess Alexandra, who was Queen Victoria’s daughter in law. She had quite a number of children, Queen Victoria’s grandchildren. Often when I open up these kinds of books I quickly find an odd fact and this time was no exception:
“The nanny, Nurse Blackburn, was so fond of Prince Eddy that she kept his first tooth and set it among turquoises in a ring.”
Further down the page, Nurse Blackburn was being terrorised by Eddie’s three sisters, who “once… described by Victoria as ‘poor frail little fairies’ grew into rampaging little girls who Nurse Blackburn could scarcely control”. I can imagine poor Nurse Blackburn absent mindedly rubbing the tooth ring and thinking about Eddy as the girls ran riot through the grounds, and kicked the gardener in the shins.
While I was reading the book, a family started to browse the DVDs. Everyone had come along, all three generations. The grandparents, parents, and three sons. “What are you going to watch?” asked the dad of the grandfather, who replied “One Foot in the Grave”, and wheezed out a laugh. The grandfather was wearing a thick navy blue jumper and had a walking stick which spread out into four feet at the bottom for added stability. He looked at the DVDs for a while before coming to sit down on the other side of me.
At the adjacent set of chairs sat his grandkids, three boys who were absorbed in playing on their phones. They were being guarded by grandma, who stood over them, as if ready to come to their defence.
The other book I’d picked out was “The Early Tudors at Home” by Elizabeth Burton. I opened it to a random page and read:
“Farting too was a subject much dwelt upon in riddles and jests, as was excrement.” (Un)fortunately, no examples were given. This was in the chapter “Of Pleasures and Pastimes”. I could imagine the joy with which the primary school student chanced upon those lines, which perhaps explained why the book opened to that page straight away.
More interesting to me than Tudor fart jokes were the illustrations, particularly the tents of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Line drawings make history seem so romantic. The reality was no doubt much more dangerous and odorous.
While I am no fan of Henry VIII, I laughed at his series of suits of armour, from youth to old age. The progression from skirt, to pants with codpiece must have been frightening for those around him, as suddenly ones eyes are drawn to the genitals whether we like it or not.
Looking up, the grandfather was flipping through a science magazine, while keeping a stern eye on the Dennis Lillee guy, who was still peering out from behind the book, as obviously as before. I got up and went to find somewhere to photograph the covers of the two books I’d been reading.
I chose the photocopy room, which was a small, quiet room with a glass wall looking out over the reference and study area. The photocopier hummed beside me as I photographed the cover of the book. Also in the room was a big paper guillotine, on a bench with a purpose-built hole in the top in which to put the offcuts. I resisted the urge to peek in, but I did peek into the bin near my feet which had discarded photocopies in it. On top was a series of pages printed from a blog, comments about banning smoking in Harbour Town, which must be in Adelaide as the people making comments were called “Harry of Adelaide” and “Sick of Adelaide”. According to them, online shopping is the solution for non-smokers (as you can avoid the fumes) and smokers (who can avoid being discriminated against). Of all the reasons to shop online, these are the weirdest.
I took photos of the book covers and left them beside the photocopier, feeling guilty. I hadn’t seen anywhere to leave books for reshelving, so this would have to do. Is this annoying for librarians? I hoped not, and maybe someone coming in to photocopy something would find the early Tudors interesting.
On the way out I noticed another display alongside the one for History Week, this one a noticeboard for Dementia Week, with information about the disease pinned to it. They were strange ones to have side by side, I thought. I examined the books in the book sale but found nothing of interest. Most of them were ex-library books from the medical section, and I imagined all the layers of despair that must be stuck to the pages.
Outside, I started walking across the grass towards the intersection. There was a memorial wattle grove at the side of the library, for those who had died a tragic death, or died from workplace accidents or asbestos exposure and I paused there for a moment, thinking about the network of outermost suburbs that surround Campbelltown. Many of the cars which passed by would eventually pull into driveways beside houses in suburbs which are almost at the limit of maps. When I lived in the northwest as a child I would look at the street directory and see that there was only one map square between me and where the maps ended. It was exciting to be so near the city’s boundary. Beyond it I imagined a wild place, both thrilling and terrifying.