I'm just putting it out there - right from the start. When it comes to taking sides in the infamous rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney, I'm a Melbourne girl. Yes, if you're wealthy or lucky enough to live near the water, Port Phillip Bay can't hold a candle to Sydney Harbour. But glitzy Sydney, where are your urbane, European-inspired streets and culture, your hot-chocolate/water bottle, moody-grey-snuggling-by-the-fire winters and (gasp) what's with all the hills and relentless sunshine?
I'm in Sydney promoting my recently published memoir, Hippy Days, Arabian Nights and I must admit it's been too long between drinks. It is a glorious city. And I can say that with some authority having once lived here back in the seventies. I'd dropped out of art school in Melbourne and, after taking a slight detour to Western Australia, me and my boyfriend John, harbouring a hippy counterculture dream of getting back to nature and becoming totally self-sufficient, found ourselves living in Mosman trying to earn and save enough money to buy 100 acres of bush on the Far South Coast of New South Wales. We'd answered an ad in the classifieds in the Sydney Morning Herald and before we knew it we were, as our new employer Lady Hooker came to refer to us in polite company, 'domestics'.
Below is an excerpt from Hippy Days, Arabian Nights describing our life 'below stairs' :
'John soon found work on a Sydney construction site and we applied for a live-in-maid and gardener/chauffeur position in the salubrious North Shore suburb of Mosman. Lady Hooker, widow of deceased real estate tycoon Sir Leslie Hooker, ushered John and me into her living room overlooking a glittering Middle Harbour. We were barely twenty years old. Although John had tried to conceal his long plait down the back of his shirt and I was wearing a smart and conservative dress bought from the Salvos especially for the occasion, we did not look like the usual hired help. However, perhaps softened by the recent death of her husband, Lady Hooker must have taken pity on the babes from the bush perched nervously on the edge of her Herman Miller couch. The kindly old woman with the lavender-tinted, Dame Edna bouffant, agreed to give us and our yowling Siamese cat a three-month trial.
The following day we moved into the servant’s quarters, a compact one bedroom flat tucked under the post-modern, Mondrian inspired mansion in Hopetoun Ave––the street recently voted Sydney’s Number One by the Australian Financial Review. Greeting us at the top of the garden stairs, Lady Hooker handed John a remote control so he could park our car in the garage next to her shiny silver BMW.
‘Is that your car dear?’ she asked me, gesturing towards to a late model Golf on the other side of the road.
‘No Lady Hooker. It’s that one,’ I replied, pointing to the trusty old ute still wearing its dilapidated wooden canopy and covered in red bull dust from the desert.
‘Oh my goodness!’ she said scanning the street for neighbours. ‘Quickly, dear. Put it in the garage.’
That afternoon, John and I grabbed our swimmers and beach towels and raced down the steep flight of sandstone steps, past the hot pink and orange flowering azaleas, hibiscus, bougainvillea and a bronze plaque inscribed with the words, ‘Here Lies L J Hooker Kt. who loved this place, this land and especially its people’, to the water’s edge.
Sir Leslie hadn’t always lived on the North Shore. Of Chinese heritage, he was orphaned at eight and by thirteen had left school to work as a clerk. At the age of sixteen the ambitious and tenacious young man owned his first property and, after marrying a storekeeper’s daughter, Madeline Adella (Delzie) Price and surviving the Depression, his real estate business flourished.
The Depression had obviously left a lasting impression on Delzie Hooker, evident in her passion for recycling. Instructed to wash and dry used bits of Glad Wrap and aluminium foil, I was also directed to scour butter and yoghurt containers before stacking them in toppling towers in the walk-in pantry for re-use as storage containers. Every twelve weeks the three of us would pile into the BMW and head to one of those bulk warehouses to stock up on cut-price washing powder, toilet paper and cleaning products. ‘Waste not, want not’ extended to such utilities as electricity: John and I scolded if we left the lights on.
In those days, with her husband the largest pastoral landholder in Australia, Lady Hooker was the wealthiest woman in the country and could have well afforded to hire caterers for her Christmas parties. Instead, she and I did the preparations for her guests ourselves. I’d polish the silverware, buff wine glasses and decorate the living room and together we made hundreds of tiny meringues and mini toasted breads smeared with caviar or Camembert. Trussed uncomfortably in pressed trousers, a black satin cumber band and a starched white shirt, John was the waiter: his task to mingle inconspicuously with the guests and refresh their champagne glasses as required. But as I loaded the dishwasher in the kitchen, I could hear John’s voice rise above the subdued conversations in the voluminous living room as he launched into a diatribe against the director of the AMA or some other establishment institution: the words ‘fat cats’, ‘corporate greed’ and ‘come the revolution’ standing out in particular.
One day, Lady Hooker asked if I’d like to accompany her to the ballet at Sydney Opera House. Lady Fairfax had bailed at the last minute and she had a spare ticket. Having never been to so much as a poetry recital at the iconic venue, I was beside myself with excitement. As our chauffeur for the evening, John drove the BMW up to the grand entrance, jumped out of the car, opened my door and with a wink and a grin, bowed as, turning heads in my classic vintage op shop ensemble, I stepped onto the pavement like a Logie nominee on award night. I followed Lady Hooker up the burgundy carpeted staircase to the foyer and after finishing our champagne we joined the smartly dressed throng as they made their way into the auditorium. It was half way through the first act when I turned to Lady Hooker to comment on the grace and beauty of the prima ballerina only to find my elderly employer, eyes closed and head lolled to one side, snoring softly in her seat.
The house boasted five bedrooms and three bathrooms but there was only so much mess one little old lady could make, so my cleaning duties were relatively light. To supplement our income, I worked three mornings a week as a checkout chick in a local fruit and veggie barn and Friday nights I washed dishes at pancake parlour on Military Road. Every so often Lady Hooker would take off on one of her Women’s Weekly World Cruises, sometimes for weeks at a time. With little to do and the whole of upstairs to ourselves, John and I could take it easy. On glorious Sunday afternoons, we’d sit on the balcony overlooking Brett Whiteley’s dazzling harbour, smoking joints, sipping the champagne we’d appropriated from Lady Hooker’s well-stocked wine cellar and, pretending we were rich and famous, waving to the binocular-wielding Japanese tourists on the tour boats if we happened to hear a loud-speaker point out the Hooker house on the right.
After two-and-a-half years of domestic servitude we’d saved enough money to buy a hundred acres of bush on the Far South Coast of New South Wales. At the age of twenty-three, these uni dropout, anti-capitalists were landholders. Sir Leslie would have been tickled pink.
It was time to say goodbye to ‘The Hook’, as we’d affectionately come to refer to our benevolent boss. She was sad to let us go, she said. I think her young, feral and just-married housekeepers had brought a little joy and a certain frisson of excitement into her life. For the next few years Lady Hooker sent me fifty dollars on my birthday and another fifty at Christmas.
But there was no time for sentiment. John and I had a dream to pursue. It was Easter, 1979. We packed the ute with the cat, a brand-new cement mixer, a Pittsburgh pot belly stove, a giant Stihl chainsaw, as well as a gleaming collection of the finest carpentry and gardening tools money could buy and headed south.'
My next book event is at the NSW State Library on Saturday 10 June, 2:00pm - 3:00pm.
Please join me in conversation with fellow author, performer and director Ailsa Piper. http://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/events/hippy-days-arabian-nights
Your intrepid little Aussie author,
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Find out more about Hippy Days, Arabian Nights at http://www.katherineboland-author.com