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The Silent Suburbs

Updated on November 19, 2009

The Australian version of the suburban dream


The Australian suburb is probably one of the most ignored things about the place. In all the big cities, there they are, untold tonnages of domesticity, neurosis, and a sort of familiar naiveté, dressed up like a six year old “going out”. One of the great things about being a full time writer is that I get to look at them from the outside, when they’re not immersed in the microscopic facets of themselves.

A short walk to “the shops” is enough as a sampler. Past the various forms of architecture, the 70s flats looking anonymous and the 80s version looking reactionary and somewhat proud of it, a straggling procession of strollers and suspiciously cute kids with mothers rattles by. We’re in the middle of a vicious drought, and the gardens look surprisingly optimistic, although it is Spring. The park is covered in chip bark compost, which seems to be working, keeping the stubbornly/endlessly replanted shrubs going. The heat reflects off the ground and a tide of rainbow lorikeets has decided not to show up, knowing I’ll be writing this.

More buildings, some houses now, of all vintages…. And a silence you couldn’t ever quite identify. All this doll’s house idiom emphasizes it. People are missing. There’s an odd feel of life about the houses and the flats. The flats hide it better, but the suggestion remains. Another park, a train line, a little kid trying to figure out what the gigantic moving thing is. A doctor’s practice, I saw him doing his own stencil on his sign a few weeks ago.

Brand new flats, close enough to transport to fall out of bed and wind up in Brisbane. Very pretty, balconies, modern, and with a sort of innocence that younger buildings seem to cling to among their ancient neighbours. Past a large gum tree and a charity collection box are Centrelink and Community Services, places I avoid stringently which always have an air of something…. intolerable, intrusive, personally offensive.

Now “the shops”. A very predictable mix of older buildings, some still with the 50s false fronts, and the very welcome awnings. In the hotter times shade is a real blessing anywhere in Australia, and to this shade is added the steel and smells, the windows and images of people, stock, movement, traffic, all things I’ve known since I was a kid.

The faces have changed a bit. I walked past an African on the way here, and was given a brief, intense, look which suggests that (a) I somehow broke a train of thought, and (b) I wasn’t much of a replacement. How anyone ever managed to think of Africans as anything but sensitive people I cannot imagine. The Middle Easterners are good neighbours, quiet, articulate, and invariably polite.

Past the Chinese restaurant, which contains a nice oil painting which has been left a bit too close to the kitchen and the humidity has affected the stretch on the canvas. Good brush work. I tried to tell the guy how to clean it up…. probably a bit invasive of me, but it’s a good enough painting to keep clean. Past the Bangladeshi shop, their idea of “mild” bhuja is about 90% of my threshold for hot spices.

Past the newsagent, the bastion of Aussiedom in this particular street, the nice sort. The hairdresser/drycleaner/laundry, where I’ve felt very guilty leaving a heavy bag of laundry for a nice old girl with a severe fractured arm. Over the train tracks, through an increasing mass of people in various states of suburban bliss. Crossing the rail bridge I can see the CBD, the tower and the imposition of human architecture on a sky and horizon which have done nothing to deserve it. Sydney is in many ways a very nice place, so much so that it’s easy to find some things about it quite unacceptable.

The Vietnamese bakery seems to have grown there. There are a few El Cheapo shops which are actually very useful, but have proliferated to the point of obstructing each other. There are now a few people obviously at work, a suit or so flickers about. The strollers and little kids are thick, and the older people sit or stagger about like a running…..well… limping, commentary.

Henry Lawson was right about the Faces In The Street. They can haunt you, and do a good job of it. Looking for meaning in a human face can be one of the most unnerving experiences possible. If those faces come from other cultures, it’s even tougher, and your chances of being quite off the mark are that much greater. By now the entire human gamut of the place is wandering the streets, and the combination is extraordinary. There are the islanders, who are such a distinct group that the word “islanders” has a definite meaning. There are the Arabs, the thousands of varieties, which it takes years to tell the difference. There are the Vietnamese, another strong identity. The Chinese, who apparently invented the idea of urban hard slog, always fighting the daily thunder of life. Here and there a Koori and the odd Maori, again, instant images. Ironically the main demographic in this part of southwestern Sydney is English, believe it or not, according to Bureau of Stats. Comes to that, there is the odd cloth cap about, sometimes inhabited.

So much for image by association. This is where the haunting starts. On those faces of whatever age and condition, there is meaning. The Arabs all have it. The Chinese and Vietnamese wear it like a badge of honor. The older people all have it, some sort of stamp, yes, but it’s custom made for each face. The eyes all have brains behind them, and that’s the medium. You don’t need to hold a séance around here. Fortunately for me I’m not so much mystical today as altruistically trying to save the world from a couple of bottles of a nice cheap Merlot I’ve discovered. Into the bottles shop (really; I’m not trying to find any Australian icons) to see the bottle-bloke’s family of very young kids making their camp on the floor in a passage behind the counter. The family is Chinese, and a version of one of the fabulous giant Ming sailing ships sits proudly near a display. Stereotypes, eh? Wine bought, off to the other newsagent I slither, past an Islamic ladies’ wear shop with mannequin heads all wearing different head scarves. A world I don’t comprehend, and for the very good reason that it’s none of my business. A real Arab coffee shop sails by, with a group of people as different again, in conversation. Some of them seem to be regulars, I’ve seen them before. Next comes the supermarket I was directed to by the local chemist when I couldn’t find some herbal tea….

Back across the rail bridge, to one of the Chinese shops for the best parsley, which doesn’t rot in the fridge, and who sell my ginseng/royal jelly, delicious on ice cream. I’m now in the little mall where I usually buy my groceries, and I know most of the people. Pausing only to reassure a lettuce that I need it even if nobody else does, I exit the place and sidestep the ibis crap near the dumpster. Whatever those birds eat doesn’t break down chemically.

A few steps and I’m back among the silences of the suburb. It’s like all that never happened. There it all is, the massive assertion of humanity, complete with windows and passing cars, and…..what? It’s a really nice day, too, the sort of postcard weather you get with droughts, and the houses and flats look so neat and unencumbered by any sort of human cares. A train set world. The little gardens are enthusiastic, the odd grey and white cat sits by a phone box waiting for a phone call….. all so normal.

I should be honest about this. I’m not an admirer of suburbanism. I loathe it. I despise the whole ethos of it. Always have. To me, a human horizon ought to go beyond mere behavior and social norms and crappy third-rate TV and pitiful movies. To me, it’s an insult to the entire species. However, here are a few genuinely nice homes, even an old 1930s-ish weatherboard with a veranda and some old but reliable roof tiles, among the indecisive modern styles. Houses have faces too, and this one has a look that Chips Rafferty would have recognized instantly. Someone’s put in a two rail horizontal fence, treated wood, and persuaded a few Marguerite daisies to grow, they’re good foliage plants too, when they feel like it. It’s definitely a place where someone grew up in the original Australian idiom.

So, finally, that makes me realize that I probably just don’t recognize the idioms all those faces are growing up in now. It was the
Chinese who made me see it, eventually. I saw a few kids in their parents’ shop, being kids, teasing each other about a game they were playing, in a place about the size of a kitchenette out the back. To them, it’s home, it’s a part of them. I later recognized it with a Lebanese family I’ve known for years, a few doors away. Suburbia isn’t what it’s supposed to be. It’s perfectly obvious, if you look. People are people. It just doesn’t matter what the images you tack onto them are. The silent suburbs are just waiting for their people to come home. Makes you wish they had time to live in them.


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    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      A very good and thought provoking hub. I enjoyed it.