The roads were empty because of the virus and sailing by at 60 all I caught was a glimpse of the wall and it was difficult to say for certain, but I thought the flag was gone. I’d only just figured out what it was. Months before, when I’d first noticed it, I was stumped. I had been walking the Villain, walking all over the suburb for hours on end trying to tire him out. Even then, plodding up the hill on foot, I’d almost missed it, clocked it late, had to haul back hard on the lead and retrace some steps.
The narrow building was three storeys of orange-blond brick behind the waist-high concrete retaining wall. It gave nothing away and neither was there clarification in the security gates across the driveways on either side of it. It was an apartment block in the early-seventies style, standing perpendicular to the street. Three large windows with a wind-out panel in each were stacked one on top of the other above a compact garden of thriving succulents.
I knew a little history of the street, gleaned from the shit-talk in bars all round the famous inner-city suburbs of Melbourne. Grey Street’s seamy reputation proceeded it that way. Once, there was a period of prosperity and opulence—traceable today in the nineteenth-century mansions lining either side of the road between St Kilda’s Fitzroy Street at the western end and Barkly Street at the east. It was a period that extended into the early decades of the twentieth century too, when luxury W-class trams chugged along the street, from the St Kilda depot up the gentle slope and over the ridge line, then down to curve round outside St Kilda’s first town hall onto Barkly and continuing towards the exclusive ‘outer’ bayside suburb of Brighton.
Those days are long gone. The grand mansions have since been divvied up into crisis shelters, rooming houses and fancy filigreed flats; their extensive grounds crowded with Moderne-style walk-ups, or replaced with the blond, red or cream brick unit blocks so prevalent throughout the rest of the suburb. For the better part of the last half-century, and certainly since I had shifted to Melbourne, it was a street synonymous with prostitution, drugs and gutter-crawlers. With that colour, it also featured prominently in my walking routes with the Villain. I did not know Grey Street to have any particularly significant attachment to black history, however, so the presence of the large flag painted on the concrete retaining wall was intriguing.
I suspected that blackfellas had been dispersed from this street too, as had black bodies from urban sites nearby, notably Cleveland Gardens located just around the corner and 300 metres down Fitzroy Street towards the bay, and also Catani Gardens, found on the foreshore opposite it, just across the head of Beaconsfield Parade. I recalled mob being there, even in my time since arriving in Melbourne. It had been a hectic two decades since the start of the new millennium, with an onslaught of cultural phenomena that recast lived realities—Y2K hysteria; global terrorism against the ideals of the West; even the local impact and terrifying success of TV’s The Secret Life of Us.
I’d spent the majority of it on the ‘Northside’, in Fitzroy and Collingwood, the city’s pre-eminent hood when it came to significant urban black history, particularly in terms of political resistance and community organisation. By the time I lobbed in 1999, Gertrude Street’s ‘Dirty Mile’ was more or less done, the Aboriginal community services had fanned out across the two famous suburbs and beyond, leaving boarded-up buildings, perennially closed sites, culturally famous landmarks occupied by new, unrelated ventures or old drinking holes filled with new patronage. Along that notorious, historic strip, and in the grillwork of streets running north off it, and east–west parallel to it, there remained only fragile husks of memories.
Then in the early 2010s, a wave of gentrification swept through Fitzroy and Collingwood, just like St Kilda amid the popularity of The Secret Life of Us. The real estate gold rush on two of Melbourne’s oldest suburbs was attributed to another wildly successful television series titled Offspring. Both shows were comedy-dramas, involving a cast of central characters in their mid twenties to early thirties, upwardly mobile, mostly in ‘professional careers’, mostly white, navigating the muddle of ‘modern life’.
The effect was a dramatic shift in the demographic of Fitzroy, Collingwood and surrounds. It also appeared to suck the buzz out of St Kilda for a spell. Businesses along the length of the bayside suburb’s once perennially vibrant main drag appear to have felt the brunt of the rapid consumer withdrawal. These days the downhill stretch of Fitzroy Street from the George Hotel building to the curving upper lip of the Esplanade is miserable. Storefronts sit vacant, the futile ‘For Lease’ signage plastering a place that used to offer everything life-threatening, morally degenerate and fun.
Enter a third stupidly popular television series, this time in the form of reality-renovation show The Block, a commercial juggernaut boasting more than a million viewers per episode. Assurances of the economic benefits of regeneration were bandied about as it acquired the infamous Gatwick Hotel, a rooming house for the desperate, downtrodden and vulnerable, gutted it and went about installing luxury apartments; then the very next year it ripped into the meth-derelict charm of the Oslo Hotel around the corner on Grey Street. For two years there was hype, commotion and rubbernecking in anticipation of the climactic ‘reveals’. Both seasons failed to deliver on promises implied or explicit of general uplift or economic rejuvenation. If anything, more local businesses went under. Was it these inscrutable market forces that also disappeared a Black presence once defined by the mysterious Grey Street flag, I wondered.
Rolling Stone magazine had just released its first edition back after a similar kind of commercial flatline and the commission its new editor had in mind for me was to commemorate the three-decade mark since the release of Archie Roach’s debut album, Charcoal Lane. I accepted because I am a fan of Roach and had recently purchased his new memoir, Tell Me Why, though I had not found the time to read it. The brief struck me as a fine excuse to pull the pin on other immediate duties and instead spend hours with a book.
An attachment came with Rolling Stones’ confirmation email: a hybrid article that was part review of the album and part feature profile of the artist. The article had been published by the magazine upon the commercial release of Charcoal Lane in 1990. The article was the winning entry of a writing competition the magazine had run for university students. In addition to publication, the prize included a trip for two to Thailand. There were other immediately notable aspects to the article too. It was apparent in the writing that its author—one Michael Langslow—was an insider from Melbourne’s thriving music scene. It was also clear in the first two paragraphs that its author was white and that Langslow had a grasp on the issues, policies and institutional structures impacting Black lives. I was impressed and mildly surprised. That level of awareness was not common in 1990. It could be argued that remains the case today.
I dug around and came up with an email address for Langslow, made contact, exchanged numbers, agreed on a time for a telephone interview, given that the city was in virus lockdown. In the meantime, I kept reading Roach’s memoir and discovered passages that brought me to tears, and other sections of the book that filled me with admiration and wonder. In its pages, I solved my mystery of the Grey Street flag. The address was a rehabilitation centre for Aboriginal men that Roach had checked himself into in the late 1970s aged 19 or 20 at a real low point in his life.
The young bloke had endured more than a few bad trials: taken by government agents from his parents as a toddler because the family was Aboriginal; separated from his older siblings; put in white care, dislocated from his people and culture. At 15 Roach left his second foster home and began wandering, following rumours of family, searching sunbursts of childhood memory. He wandered north to Sydney and north-west across Victoria; did a stint inside the cold bluestone walls of Pentridge Prison; then set out for the edge of a desert and later, on the toss of a coin, down to Adelaide by hitching rides and walking by roadsides.
I was reading his life and walking the Villain, big circuitous walks around the suburb: Alma Road, Barkly Street, Grey Street, Fitzroy Street, Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda Gardens, past the famous painter Albert Tucker’s old place, around I’d go. Other times I’d walk to the Junction, to the centuries-old Ngargee Tree near the oval and across into Albert Park; or I’d wander down to the waterfront and right along to West Beach, up into Middle Park, Port Melbourne, the big red Spirit of Tasmania ferry looming larger and larger, and the Westgate ramp rising into the smog-haze sunset. In those travels I’d pass other locations and addresses that Roach mentions in his book. Not by deliberately searching them out either. These places emerged like freighted words in a grid, like meaning on a page.
In his 1990 article for Rolling Stone, Langslow wrote about the honesty of Roach’s debut album and its ‘deep ring of authenticity’. The album felt like the blues, he said. The article related an all-too-common modern Aboriginal history of dispossession, dispersal, exclusion, persecution, and the violent assimilation policy of child removal that frames Roach’s now well-known personal experience, before noting the determined efforts from within the Koori community towards the advancement of Aboriginal rights and cultural revitalisation.
‘The Aboriginal community has gained in strength and conviction over recent years. Compelling achievements in painting, theatre, dance, literature, and music have demonstrated the vitality of Aboriginal culture in the twentieth century to the world, not as a relic of the past, but as a force for change in the present and the future,’ wrote Langslow.
I called him and over the course of our interview, Langslow explained that his awareness of Aboriginal affairs stemmed from a series of paintings his grandfather did in the 1980s on black deaths in custody, particularly around the 1983 case of John Pat in Roebourne, Western Australia—a former goldrush town in the Pilbara recently experiencing a new boom on the back of iron ore and the corresponding influx of white male workers to the region.
John Pat was a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy when he was beaten by at least four policemen and later found dead in a police lock-up. An autopsy of Pat’s body revealed his skull had been caved in, his ribs broken and a blood vessel in his heart dislodged. There were calls for an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his death, and for a broader investigation into the suspicious deaths of other Aboriginal people in custody going back several years. Nothing happened right away, but more and more whitefellas began to notice that Aboriginal people kept dying when they came into contact with the so-called justice system, and that there was a failure by authorities in responding to those deaths.
‘They were really powerful paintings. Very confronting. So I had certainly been aware of the politics from that time on,’ said Langslow.
Langslow’s grandfather, Sidney Nolan, is better known for his heavily stylised, iconic Kelly series of paintings, but as an elderly man, the internationally renowned artist was experimenting with spray paint on unprimed canvas. Many of these works consisted of blurred busts of blackfellas, many deceased with a cord about the
neck, or their wounded bodies entangled in bars or wire. They are images at once brutally tangible and ethereal, the subject matter captured mid dispersal.
There had been rumours all over the country in the wake of the megafire about general shenanigans committed in the midst of crisis. Unable to shrug a creeping sense of dismay, I backtracked on foot with the Villain an hour later to check up on the flag. It was not unreasonable to fear the brush and pan, the slithering tin measuring tapes, the rumbling bobcat fleet of The Block juggernaut now harnessing the coronavirus pandemic to advance steadily on yet another refuge of the vulnerable.
I headed up Grey Street, passed the northern end of Robe Street and peered down its length. After interviewing Langslow I’d started reading up on Nolan, another former St Kilda local. I’d seen the artist’s painting Robe Street, St Kilda (1945) on the internet, stared at it long enough trying to decipher what it was doing to be able mentally to superimpose the image on the present streetscape. Nolan’s work depicted the bottom of the street, where a gentle incline from Acland Street rises towards the St Kilda foreshore.
A child-like depiction of a string of bunting, stiff and sharp like flaked ceramic, zigzags above the road between siding posts, piloting the eye towards the horizon line of the upper Esplanade. The carnival quality conveyed in the imagery suddenly unveiled itself to me. The painting alluded to the playground of Luna Park’s Mr Moon face and the Palais Theatre, the beach, the bay, the pier. In Nolan’s day the precinct would also have boasted the Palais de Danse next door to what was then the Palais Cinema; the St Moritz Ice Rink in the old Wattle Path Dance Saloon building; to the Earl’s Court late-night live-jazz venue; to the saltwater baths; while further around to the right was the grand old lady, The Esplanade Hotel; and Catani Gardens, named in memory of Carlo Catani, the Italian engineer responsible for the entire Mediterranean-style design of St Kilda’s foreshore promenade.
Born in the inner-city urban slum of Carlton on the north side of the river in 1919, the young Nolan moved with his family to St Kilda later the same year, pursuing the affordable housing and improved living conditions of the 1920s construction boom in apartment blocks in the suburb. The Nolans were working class—the old man was a tram driver and an SP bookmaker—but young Sid always had his head in books of myth and legend, and as a budding artist from his early adolescence, grew increasingly infatuated with the bohemian life.
Upon leaving the family home near Acland Street in 1936, aged 17, Sid shot into the city and a flat-share, joining some hipsters he knew from the local avant-garde art scene. It provided a bolthole where Nolan could indulge himself in the highbrow without the hindrance of Sid snr. reminding him to pull his friggin’ head in. There he continued to pore over literature and art produced by the likes of Blake, Rimbaud, Kant, Auden, Spengler, Rilke, cummings, Kierkegaard, Eliot, Lawrence, Kafka, Joyce, Freud, Jung, Van Gogh, Picasso, Cézanne, Seurat and Klee. There were jazz soirees and painting holidays. It was a heady time for the young bloke.
By the mid 1940s the young artist had produced a whole heap of paintings with St Kilda as the subject, and many more besides with no real fidelity to any one artistic style. Nolan’s early work is a concatenation of experimentation in technique, materials, shape and scale, but most share a debt to the Primitivist aesthetic that was in vogue at the time. His Self Portrait (1943) is a well-known example of how Nolan was incorporating ‘primitive’ elements into his artistic practice. The bold red, blue and yellow plains of colour are a simplification of other landscapes he was simultaneously producing in other styles at the time. A band of three lines of the same colours is painted across the forehead of the portrait image, evocative of ceremonial ochre markings, while the representation of the artist holds a paint palette and brushes before it in a configuration reminiscent of shield, fletching and shaft.
The St Kilda paintings in the ‘series’ of 1945–46 are the natural progression of the same practice, with added explorations of narrative. There are a few stories about the pier; one about the mysterious fire that burnt down the Palais de Danse in 1926; a couple are set in Luna Park; several more landscapes involving its fun rides, particularly the Scenic Railway; there are bathers and divers and surf lifeguard towers; larrikins fooling on the beach; flâneurs drifting on garden pathways closing in on midnight; a suggestive curve of the upper Esplanade; the footballer bristling in front of goal before a crowd of smeared faces at the nearby Junction Oval. Later in his life Nolan described St Kilda as ‘kitsch heaven’. The St Kilda paintings are an ode to his childhood immersed in that kitsch fairground: a series of reminiscences that each contain a dash of literary conceit.
The 1945–47 period also saw Nolan produce the first 27 of the Kellys, for which the artist would become internationally renowned. The iconic series, and specifically the recurring black mask motif, drew on the same heavily stylised abstract and surreal visual elements and literary devices being finely tuned in the St Kilda paintings, but substituted childhood nostalgia with metaphysical examinations of injustice and the meaning of place.
The flag was intact on the concrete wall outside the healing place, though there had been some maintenance: a touch-up to try to cover a blue swastika tag on the yellow orb. Bristling, the Villain and I stalked around that section of the street for ten minutes, vainly searching for a culprit. Then I began thinking about time and the two artists and we drifted over to Fitzroy Street. I thought about the contrast between Nolan as a 20-something visiting St Kilda on weekends from a loft studio near the University of Melbourne in Parkville on the Northside, and Roach as a young fella trying to get his hot head straight in Galiamble.
Roach’s partner Ruby Hunter had just walked out on him, kids in tow, sending Roach into a tailspin and a final serious drinking binge. He had a bad seizure, woke up in a hospital bed again. This time he decided to enter a rehab program. In his memoir, Roach said Galiamble was where he became aware that his alcoholism was a disease and that it defined him. In the process of getting sober, he began attending AA meetings all over the city, hearing stories about living with the disease, listening to what he terms the ‘same hopeless predictability of ruin’. Hearing these spirals of despair, Roach began to identify the root cause of his own disease as trauma.
Although he had a talent for music from a young age, and had performed country favourites by Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash and Charley Pride in drinking circles for years, Roach began to get serious about his songwriting at Galiamble. The results of that process contributed to the debut album, Charcoal Lane, named after a bluestone back-alley drinking spot in Fitzroy around the corner from the Builders Arms Hotel on Gertrude Street. There’s a track on the album, of the same title, that recounts the desperation and companionship among mob frequenting the site.
‘Empathy was my impetus,’ Roach said about his early songwriting in his memoir. The songs were about people and their stories, pain and joy. The tracks on the album contain heavy subject matter and stem from momentous macro-cultural issues, but Roach and the mob around him could only afford to be concerned with the life directly in front of them, he writes:
Ruby helped children and families who had been marginalised, without spending too much time thinking about why they were marginalised, and how. Uncle Banjo spent a lot of time and energy trying to gain back control over the mission forest, without too much thought about the bigger question of land rights. I was writing about my experiences of being taken from my parents, and the death of a young Aboriginal man. I was not thinking about the rest of the Stolen Generations and the epidemic of deaths in custody …
Before the debut album, Roach played support for Paul Kelly and the Messengers at a gig at what is now called Hamer Hall. He opened with the track ‘Beautiful Child’, his song about Lloyd James Boney, the 28-year-old Aboriginal fella found hanging from a footy sock in a Brewarrina local police cell on 6 August 1987—just 90 minutes after being violently arrested by three police officers for a simple breach of bail. Boney’s death incited a black uprising in the dusty country town and led to the commencement, four days after his lifeless body was discovered, of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in Australia.
The hall was packed, people stuffed into the stalls all the way up to the ceiling. Roach was met with silence when he finished singing the song. ‘Maybe you’ll like this one,’ he said, before launching into ‘Took the Children Away’. More silence followed the end of the second song too. But then came a trickle of applause, gathering quickly into a surge of ‘real, roaring approval’. That was the set: two songs, 25 minutes; the house left stunned.
Paul Kelly, watching from the wings, recalled years later that all the hairs on his body stood up as Roach performed that night. Singer Linda Bull was looking on from the wings too. I asked her about that moment 30 years ago for my Rolling Stone article, and she said she would never forget it.
‘The voice, and his whole demeanour—there was nothing like it. I’d never heard or seen before, the effect that his voice had on such a massive group of people,’ she said.
The people behind the record label Kelly was signed to were similarly impressed. They wondered whether Roach might be interested in recording an album. Kelly and the Messengers’ guitarist Stephen Connolly enquired a week after the Hamer Hall concert, but Roach didn’t have much interest in doing an album. He had just got his life on steady going, found a way of living that worked for him, Ruby and their boys. So he decided to decline and duly informed his wife. But Ruby was having none of that: ‘It’s not all about you, Archie Roach. How many blackfellas you reckon get to record an album?’
Fitzroy Street was said to be laid over a path used for tens of thousands of years by the Yulukit-willam mob to get down to the bay, or narrm, from a camp near where the St Kilda Junction is today. I headed for the Ngargee Tree there, a river red gum that even in colonial documents is recognised as a gathering place for ceremony and celebration.
The tree is said to be around 700 years old but the majesty you expect to see in such a living organism is missing due to its limbs having been lopped over a number of decades. Gawking at its gnarled trunk I tried to imagine the red gum’s broad sweeping reach and the exuberant dance scenes held below those boughs just prior to European invasion.
Then the ancestral landscape flickered and the branches were restored. There it was, and not just the Ngargee Tree either. Everything surrounding us was as it was meant to be: the ceremony place, the camp below the hill, the Birrarung wetlands and fresh-water lagoons nearby, bountiful with water birds. Then, with a shiver, the ancestral world vanished again.
We drifted through a corridor of remnant coastal scrub around the northern outer edge of Junction Oval, crossed Lakeside Drive and headed for the water, bobbing between the scaffolding of temporary grandstands, still in place months after the cancellation of the Grand Prix because of the virus outbreak. Inside the racing circuit, manicured lawns covered the banks of the constructed lake. A bevy of indolent black swans waddled clear of the Villain as we approached the water’s edge.
I recalled a Nolenesque story about the lake too, told by a neighbour in a village in the Dandenong Ranges once frequented by a youthful Nolan on his painting holidays. Three decades ago the St Kilda municipal council drained the lake to remove a weed infestation and debris dumped in it over the years. To the astonishment of the engineers, once the water was out they discovered the lake’s bed carpeted with discarded false teeth.
More than a month later, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police during a roadside arrest in Minneapolis for his alleged use of a counterfeit $20 bill had escalated into a social uprising around the globe. The parallels of Floyd’s death and the 2015 death in custody of 26-year-old Dunghutti man David Dungay Jr were distinctive, right down to the final, fearful, frantic words of the two men. There were also close similarities to the death in custody of another 20-something Aboriginal man, Wayne Fella Morrison, who was left ‘unresponsive’ after around 16 prison officers in South Australia piled on top of him in 2016.
Dungay and Morrison are two of the more recent Aboriginal deaths in custody of the 437 that have occurred since the final report of the royal commission was handed down in 1991. In that period not one police officer or prison guard or any other official has been convicted over the loss of a life that occurred on their watch.
Demonstrations were planned in cities and regional hubs around Australia to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in North America, but under a placard of rallying against Aboriginal deaths in custody. Then two things caught my ear. The first came from the mouth of the Australian Prime Minister and caught just about everybody’s ear: in a Sydney radio interview, the PM warned against ‘importing the things that are happening overseas to Australia’ and against drawing equivalence between the deaths of black and Indigenous people elsewhere in the globe and people of colour here. ‘We don’t need the divisions that we’re seeing in other countries. We need to stick together and look after each other,’ he told listeners.
Like many Aboriginal people, my reaction was to point at any number of reports from relevant community organisations and academic research that indicated how many of the 339 recommendations of the 1991 royal commission report aimed at preserving black lives that had come into contact with the justice system remained unimplemented: how Aboriginal people were still ten times more likely to die in custody than non-Indigenous people; how 28 per cent of the country’s prison population were Aboriginal people—a 14 point rise since 1991; or how Aboriginal kids are at least ten times more likely to be removed from their family than non-Indigenous kids; and how there has been more than a 40 per cent increase in Aboriginal kids living in out-of-home care in the last 12 months alone; and more broadly about how Aboriginal kids continue to be separated from their family and culture at alarming rates, which has the very real potential to produce another Stolen Generations scenario.
The second thing was a tweet I’d scrolled past in the course of work that was posted by a white woman—an ally to the uprising—that confessed how she and a friend, though both in their mid fifties, struggled to recall the names of any Aboriginal casualties of the death-in-custody epidemic. They knew George Floyd all right, and they knew Ahmaud Arbery. They recalled Trayvon Martin in Miami Gardens, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, but couldn’t recall the names of any of the Aboriginal deaths in custody in Australia during that same eight-year period. The tweet said the woman was ashamed and would be attending the rally in her city.
Ignoring the reasonable warnings of all the chief medical officers regarding the risk of large crowds and community transmission of the virus, and despite my own chronic disease, I packed a fluid-resistant mask, a tube of alcohol goo and headed into Spring Street. The turnout spread across three city blocks, which put the attendance at somewhere around 15,000. I got my face into my mask and drew my black hoodie low, like everyone else.
I was a long way back from whatever was going on in front of the steps of Parliament House and struggling for air with the mask over my mouth and nose. Masked people kept pouring in around me too, which added to my anxiety after so many weeks in social isolation. I looked around for mob and only saw the eye slots of well-meaning white people. Then, somewhere to my left, one of them began to chant. And the chant began to surge through the tightly packed crowd: ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe …’ And I thought about Roach the last time I’d seen him, in a chair with an oxygen concentrator below: the smoke from the megafire filled the city and the hot sky was low. And I thought about Nolan’s Kellys: all those masks on horseback, riding to nowhere. •
Jack Latimore is a Birpai fella and a senior editor at NITV News. He was a columnist for Guardian Australia and a former daily editor for IndigenousX.