Byron Bay

The Way We Were

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Recently, after we had eaten too much fish and chips for dinner in a Bay Lane restaurant, a friend and I decided to stroll around town until our stomachs settled.

This perambulation suited me fine for a secondary reason -- I wanted to reminisce with him about the way The Bay used to look and be more than a decade ago. My friend, being that rare bipedal species, a true local, born and bred in the town, and a generous sharer of recollections and insights, was happy to join me in excavating the collective digsites and landscapes of our memories. His excavations naturally cut through deeper layers than mine, layers dating back to the 1950s and 60s. Which is virtually the equivalent of carbon-dating when you look at how, and how rapidly, "progress" has altered the jizz of Byron Bay.

I'm using "jizz" metaphorically. "Jizz," so my bird identification book tells me, is the overall impression or character a bird gives; a combination of colour, size, shape and movement.

After walking to the water's edge at Main Beach to relish the light of a full winter's moon on an adamantine sea, my friend and I buttoned up our jackets and made our way back down Jonson Street. Our walk took more than an hour as we warmed to our subject. It was a nostalgic experience, bitter sweet as nostalgia typically can be.

Before we got down to the nitty-gritty of noting what used to be where, my friend recounted how only that day he had hosted a group of visiting American environmental students.

"Where did you take them?" I asked.

"First of all," he replied pointedly, "I took them up to the water tower (in Paterson Street) to give them an overview of the town and a clear view of the Greed Line."

The awful aptness of "Greed Line" made me sniff. In the Byron Bubble, the more the developers race towards the Holy Grail of Coastal Capital Gains, the more the rest of us are inclined to retreat, if that is the right word, into a nostalgia for rural landmarks and small-town lifestyles now lost to us forever.

While we're on the subject of nostalgia and before I share some of our recollections of The Way We Were in Byron, I want to remark on how the economic and intellectual elites of our times have given nostalgia a bad rap.

Nostalgia, the dictionary declares, is "homesickness as a disease; [a] regretful or wistful memory of an earlier time; sentimental yearning for (some period of the past)."

Yet according to Fraser Harrison "there is another dimension to nostalgia and it should not be dismissed as simply a self-indulgent, escapist and pernicious failing. Where its account of history is patently untrue, and more ideological than it would pretend, it does none the less express a truth of its own, which reflects an authentic and deeply felt emotion ... our addiction to it is surely a symptom of our failure to make a satisfactory mode of life in the present, but perhaps it can also be seen as evidence of our desire to repair and revitalise our broken relations. The pastoral fantasy nostalgia invented is after all an image of a world in which men and women feel at home with themselves, with each other and with nature, a world in which harmony reigns."

If you are among the one million visitors who pass through Byron Bay each year and visit the lighthouse, chances are you'll also stroll through town, check out the shops and cafes and stay longer than you intended.

You may not hang around long enough to eavesdrop on local conversations, but if you do, you'll notice a peculiar referencing going on. Our speech is often punctuated by allusions to what used to be.

For example, if you agree to meet another local outside the surf shop, you need to specify which one. The small, garishly painted one where the Country Women's Association used to be or the big flash one (with non-stop surfing videos playing in its windows) where cosy, old Ringo's (Cafe) used to be? As a local, you would know it would not be the one which once adjoined the dive shop in that funky old fibro block of shops in Fletcher Street, because that has been demolished for ages and the site now features a massive hole in the ground full of poisoned water awaiting decontamination before the serious work of constructing yet another Noosa-style shopping mall can begin.

Or, should someone ask you to collect a video from town, would you go to Video Connection in the building which used to house the Department of Social Security (pre-Centrelink) or to Late Nite Video in the old timber house where the musical instrument shop used to be?

During our Memory Lane trip around town, we walked past the sizeable and luxurious Waves Motel, in Lawson Street. That stirred up the past for me. Back in 1990, the site on which this two-storey accommodation is now situated was a generous suburban block with a simple 1960s timber house on it. The house was painted that ubiquitous pale ripple green of so many rural Australian dwellings, and in it lived an elderly couple. The man was often seen working in his large vegetable garden in the back yard. One day while participating in a community permaculture group, I helped pull down some dying sweet pea vines from his chicken wire trellis. The wife had explained to us that some weeks prior her husband had suffered a stroke and since then had been unable to tend the garden. While we were at it, we turned his compost heap and weeded a few overgrown vegie beds. For our trouble, the couple thanked us heartily and gave us all cool drinks…

Passing the Byron Pier shopping arcade (selling posh jewellery, Japanese food, hip clothes for anorexic teenagers and, with its mini-theme park frontage, sticking out like architectural dogs' balls in the streetscape), my friend and I both recalled another ripple green timber house which used to rest on this site and which, for many decades, was home for another elderly person. One day, shortly before the house was demolished, I was sitting on its front brick fence munching a Hunza pie and making smalltalk with passing acquaintances when I noticed beside me a straggly Japanese poinsettia plant (Euphorbia heterophylla), regarded by some as a weed, but in my opinion a very attractive plant. I pulled the plant out, divided it up by its root system and, in due course, passed the repotted sections on to various green-thumbed friends who gave them new lives in their gardens.

Right beside the Byron Pier is a building which deserved to be saved and lovingly restored -- and which was, thanks to the late Phil Oliver, whose upstairs office in 1993 held many intense gatherings of those of us intent on preventing the proposed Club Med development from going ahead at Belongil Beach.

When Phil opened the restored building, he called it The Guest House, and ran it as one for a while. That was before the building was extended and developed as -- you guessed it -- more shops. Back then, it, too, had a big back yard, dotted with tuckeroo trees and enclosed by a dilapidated paling fence covered in passionfruit vine. On steamy summer days, amongst the vine's lush leaves and tendrils, a green python thicker than my arm could often be seen sunning itself. Now, of course, that backyard has been replaced by retailers of shoes, cosmetics, expensive knickknacks for the house, et al. Where did the python go, I wonder?

Further east along Lawson Street, we came to the former Byron Shire Council Chambers, which used to house the library before it was reinstalled on the opposite side of the street, in premises which disgracefully are cramped and damp. Nowadays, the old council chambers has become a backpackers hostel.

  • At the beach end of Jonson Street, Krakatoa, which was a tiny, timber beach shack, once sold cheap Indian clothing, incense and Eastern miscellany. Now it's been redeveloped as Fresh, an upmarket bistro whose heated floors, undistinguished decor and trendy clientele are decidedly more inner-city than North Coast in style.
     
  • Almost opposite, there used to be Suppertime Blues, which for many years made the best vegie burgers and banana smoothies on the east coast. The cafe's walls were always plastered with the most hilarious and oddball "share accommodation" ads and workshop flyers. My personal favourite from the 80s was for a workshop called Power Flirting. Remember the 80s? "Power," in addition to "greed" was a buzz word of that decade. Now renovated within an inch of its former existence and called Crave, Crepes and Coffee, the cafe is all rendered brick, glass tiles, stainless steel, iron furniture, hard shiny surfaces, the restaurant look I call "radiology chic."
     
  • The Cavanbah Arcade, a few doors up, before its redevelopment, was an unassuming one-level arcade, housing, at one time, the Byron Environment Centre (when it could still afford to rent space in the main street), a shop selling locally-made angel wings for kids, and the Angel Coffee Shop (in which, way back in the last century, I tasted my first LSD (latte soy dandelion). The cafe's proprietor, Steve Reynolds would serve you graciously and, if business were quiet enough, would sit and yarn to you about the relative merits of writers, from Turgenev to Tom Wolfe.
     
  • Further down Jonson Street, we paused in front of an opal and souvenir shop whose display window featured plastic boomerangs with clock numerals glued onto them, and framed photos of an opal crushing works. We ran a cold eye over pictures of massive machinery gouging the earth and loading up gigantic trucks, and then we eyed one another without remark. What could we say?

    Finally, I said: "Something more worthwhile used to be here, but I'm embarrassed to say I can't remember what it was."

    "Lifestream," my friend replied. Lifestream, of course. How could I have forgotten Lifestream, an unpretentious vegetarian food outlet, with a black-and-white checked lino floor and capacious old wooden booths?
     

  • The demolition of the old Foodstore, corner of Lawson and Jonson Streets, was an even greater loss. With its wooden floorboards, old-fashioned shelving and cash registers so old they didn't work on barcoding, this grocery store (not supermarket) used to (there's that term again) have a quaint 1950s atmosphere. My friend reminded me that suspended from the store's ceiling, if you looked closely, had been wires which once worked on the flying fox principle. A downstairs staffer would write down a customer's order, attach it and the customer's cash to the wire, and whizz it upstairs where someone else would check the tally and whizz back the change. Why couldn't this store have been redeveloped in a way which modernised its operation but retained its faded 50s charm?

Meanwhile, over the railway line, Shirley Street, once lined with ordinary fibro and timber beach cottages, is rapidly turning into an avenue of ultra-expensive Gold Coast-style apartments -- rendered, landscaped, underground parking, swimming pools everywhere.

On the upside -- at last -- the old post office some years back was renovated and extended to incorporate the Fundamental Food store. Well, that's one redevelopment that really looks appropriate and works well.

And the other is John Cornell's pub, The Beach Hotel, still referred to by long-time locals as The Top Pub, to which my friend and I now repaired for a digestive brandy.

Well, I warned you this would be a nostalgic piece, so I hope you're not allergic to it as a sentiment or a way of framing the world.

According to writer Jay Walljasper, nostalgia has been transformed from a its original meaning of a longing for home to a hopeless pining for neverneverland, and I'm aware that my yearnings for The Way We Were in Byron fit this category of unrequited desire.

However, Walljasper, writing in the British magazine "Resurgence", points out that being nostalgic doesn't necessarily mean a retreat from the future, [and] it might actually aid us in efforts to create a better society for tomorrow."

Nostalgia, claims Walljasper "can also offer an important insight often overlooked in our hurly-burly quest for technological and economic innovation: "the recognition that something of value might have been lost on the way to the present."

Fraser Harrison is even more bluntly positive about nostalgia: "While it is easy to scoff at the whimsicality and commercialisation of rural nostalgia, it is also vital to acknowledge that this reaching out to the countryside is an expression, however, distorted, of a healthy desire to find some sense of meaning and relief in a world that seems increasingly bent on mindless annihilation."

If I allow myself to sink into a nostalgia even more radical, I could rent my garments over the fact that underneath each original Byron building was once a complex living ecology -- thriving, pristine and unencumbered by any future visions of tar, cement and tourism.

As we sipped our brandies and watched the Norfolk pines' branches tilting in the wind, we reflected sadly on the irrevocably changed jizz of the Bay. We were still trying to digest not only our dinner, but also the discombobulating changes we had catalogued on our town patrol. Neither of us could "pity the plumage" nor "forget the dying bird."

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