Not in the paper: In Croatia

Jaroslav and Damir as students in Croatia, before the political violence and deaths.

Dolac Marketplace in Zagreb

Another background story that has nothing to do with screamer headlines or weekly news in Newtown in 1978. It might be Jaroslav telling Harry about his life before he fled to Australia. Or his unspoken memories. We learn about him and his boyfriend Damir and their life as students in Zagreb, Croatia, before we and they are faced with the violence and deaths.

‘In Croatia’ was one of the first poems I wrote for the Voices, after Harry’s ‘Ultramarine’. Both were to make clear to myself and my readers what I understood or knew about each character and their reasons for living in Newtown. Both Jaro’s and Harry’s memory poems are about enforced endings and the need to make new lives.

When I wrote about Jaro’s life as a gay man in Mardi Gras festival part 1, I knew that living gay wasn’t something new for him. It was also clear that Jaro hadn’t stopped loving Damir. It’s going to be hard for him to move on. The ‘pretty Turkish boy’* might not be enough. (*Jaro meets this lad at one of the beats they both regularly visit. The boy develops a crush on him.)

‘In Croatia’ reads a bit like a fairy tale, one with dark edges. I wrote it as Jaro dictated it to me. Similarly, with ‘Ultramarine’, I watched Harry struggling with her painting, going onto the balcony for a cigarette, wrestling with the idea of finding work to pay the rent. I feel a responsibility to them and to the many people like them, to tell their stories as truthfully as possible.

A taste of ‘In Croatia’:

Eight hundred years of glorious history surrounded us

but what we sought was our future. We climbed

the ramparts, ran laughing up the cobbled streets,

cathedral and castle, churches and cafes;

the town was our territory, the river banks

our playground. That shining summer

we spent our days on the cusp of life and love

and death hiding behind people’s eyes

and in their words.

If we didn’t think about politics, if we read

and studied and laughed and danced and sang,

if we dreamed of love and drank beer and wine

and the sweet plum liqueur and picnicked

with our friends in the park by the river


Of course it gets darker and grimmer, with the bitter political infighting between government factions increasing in violence. Suddenly Jaro and his friend Marco are running in fear for their lives, bullets whistling past them, as Damir lies broken and dead in the ruins of a bombed bookshop.

Some of that infighting and violence spread to Australia in the 60s and 70s, as European migrants made new homes here, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. There were knife fights and occasional bombings resulting from tensions between former Croatians and Yugoslavs. By comparison, the recent political turmoil in Australia’s Federal Parliament, leading to the sudden removal of then current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was certainly violent and sudden, but fortunately bloodless.

“…if we didn’t think about politics, but who cannot help thinking about politics

when you are young and idealistic and your country is at war with itself

squabbling who were the patriots? who should run the country?

Read Newtown Voices

Clearly, I want you to read the poems in Newtown Voices yourself. These excerpts and backgrounders are teasers to get you wanting to know more, to become familiar with my friends Jaro and Harry, Buzz and Tom and their stories. I’ve been living with these people for 10 years; I want more people to get to know them and think about the social issues that faced people 40 years ago, and still face people today. Immigration is a big issue for many countries; so are homophobia, racism and prejudice, and there is always political agitation somewhere. Some things never seem to change, but the hope is that they evolve into better ways of dealing with thorny issues.

The photo

I didn’t have a relevant photo for a post about Croatia in the 1960s. Most of my pics are of streets and buildings and street art in Newtown, or of the harbourside areas within easy reach of my Inner West Sydney home. So I searched online and found this lovely recent shot of the Dolac marketplace in Zagreb. It’s probably not very different from how the marketplace might have looked in the 1960s.
Photo credit: Ivansmuk

If you enjoy these posts and would like to ask a question or comment, please do. I’d love to hear from you!

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices



Those Bolshie Tin Shed Girls

It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie!

Sexy photographer in jeans shirt with old camera

Another story that has no connection with the Guardian, but has a strong connection to Newtown and the social changes happening throughout the 1970s. The Tin Sheds were the workshops and art rooms of Sydney University’s Art Department, and were literally tin sheds, rough and ready structures.

[For those unfamiliar with the word, bolshie (also spelt bolshy) may refer to a Bolshevik, but is more commonly used colloquially for obstinate, difficult, strong-willed.  (

It’s similar to feisty, which Macquarie defines as showing courage and independence; high-spirited. ( ]

Buzz introduces Harry to these arty young women in her poem, ‘Tin Shed Girls’ with the line “There’s some bolshie girls at the Tin Sheds, Harry, the kind I like.”

She starts telling us about the innovative approaches these young women were taking in their art, but digresses into a lesbian daydream, the girls being not just bolshie but hot.

“I was walking behind one yesterday. She wore tight

jeans I couldn’t take my eyes off. Sweet round

cheeks like warm peaches. I followed her

for three blocks before she turned

down a side-street. Anyhow,

as well as bein hot chicks an anarchists

an feminists, these girls—an the guys

they hang out with—all artists—run

fabulous gigs, well, they do ripper posters

for discos an fundraisers for battered women*

an shelters an anti-war demos.”

[*The term “battered women” referred to women suffering under domestic violence. It was dropped after a politician suggested “battered women” sounded like “battered fish”–ie- fish in batter, ready for frying.]

WAM: the Women Activist Artists

Buzz describes some of the in-your-face approaches these young women artists took:

“They’re challengin the system with their WAM—that’s

Women’s Art Movement . . . They’re not doin arty-farty

stuffy elitist art, they’re reclaimin traditional women’s stuff—crochet an

embroidery, doilies—sounds poncy but it isn’t

cos it’s political, stuff about women’s place

in the social fabric; how women’s work is undervalued,

devalued. How the personal is political. Good stuff, eh!

Gone but not forgotten

Living in Newtown, I’d heard about the Tin Sheds art workshops, but nothing definite. I understood some contemporary artists of the 80s and 90s in Sydney—male and female—were products of the Tin Sheds. Not all the women students reworked traditional female handicrafts. Some were printmakers, others were photographers, potters, metalworkers, and painters.

I knew roughly where the Sheds were in City Road, opposite Victoria Park, but never got around to looking for them. Then I spent a year in Katoomba, up in the Blue Mountains. When I came back, the Sheds were gone, demolished, replaced with a modern functional building for the university’s Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning. The only remnant, ghost, the new gallery’s name:

Tin Sheds ghost

Working on Newtown Voices, I knew I needed to include the Tin Shed Girls, not only for their creative approach to art and politics, but because they were also active in early pro-gay and lesbian protests and consciousness raising activities. As a lesbian anarchist, Buzz would naturally know some of them. I needed to know them too, so Buzz could speak through my voice, using her own words.

Under a Hot Tin Roof

I did what research I could online about the Tin Sheds, and discovered a book had been published about studying and working there: Under a Hot Tin Roof. It was out of print, and only available in the State Library of NSW’s reference collection. I bothered the friendly and helpful curator at the Tin Sheds Gallery, and he chased up the very last unsold copy of the book, which I promptly bought. It’s a fabulous work of social history, with interviews and photos from original students, and many photos of their works.

Under a Hot Tin Roof covers nearly 40 years from the late 1960s when the old World War 2 sheds (used by CSIRO during the 1940s and 50s) were hastily converted into art workshops, with uncovered spaces between the spartan buildings.

Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the Sheds, but there are evocative B&W pics from the 1970s & early 80s in the book as well as vivid descriptions from former students.

The Sheds were “ . . . a group of old tin sheds with nothing whatsoever to offer in the way of comfort to the occupants. Hot in summer and icy in winter, they are referred to by various users as a sweatbox, a safe haven, a hidey-hole, a vital off-beat meeting place, a factory space for producing work, and a home.”

[Kenyon, Therese: Under a Hot Tin Roof

Art, Passion and Politics at the Tin Sheds Art Workshop, p 25

State Library of New South Wales Press 1995

ISBN 0 7305 8933 1]

In the photos they look like old garden sheds. The antithesis of classrooms and lecture halls. It’s easy to see why the progressive art and music teachers adapted them as workshops for teaching the philosophies and practicalities of their arts.

Squatting’s the Go

It’s also easy to understand why some male students created temporary homes from the underground spaces between the sheds. It wasn’t only the girls who were bolshie! Squatting was a risky but economical way for people to make a home. Buzz lived with five or six others in an anarchist squat—an abandoned two-storey warehouse-workshop on the edge of Hollis Park in Wilson St (close to the toilets visited by Jaro).

Coincidentally, the Sheds were in the old industrial and residential suburb of Darlington, which the university was expanding into during the 60s and 70s. Buzz tells us more about squatting and homelessness in her angry rant against the university’s expansion into her home suburb. We’ll hear from her later, in a post on ‘The Yowie’.

You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices

Mardi Gras Festival Part 2

the beginnings of Mardi Gras in Sydney on Saturday June 24, 1978

Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag
Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag at a pride parade

This is the second post looking at life for gays and lesbians in 1978, and the start of the Mardi Gras celebration.

2018 marks 40 years since the first March, held on Saturday June 24, 1978. It’s also the first Mardi Gras since the passing of the Australian “gay marriage” legislation, allowing any two adults of any gender to marry. Mardi Gras is always special, but these 2 events make it doubly special this year.

In Part 1, I looked briefly at the life of a gay man 40 years ago, as exemplified by Harry’s friend Jaroslav.

In this post, we’ll hear from Buzz about the beginnings of Mardi Gras in Sydney on Saturday June 24, 1978. For those who haven’t met Buzz, she’s a feisty lesbian social justice warrior living in an anarchist squat. She tells it like it is:

Gough promised us free education but

Gough’s not in charge any more, so

it won’t be free for long. Not much is,

(‘cept love an that’s not free for all,

Only for straights like you).

The Guardian did not run any stories about the events of that Saturday — why should it, since they didn’t happen on the Guardian’s patch: Newtown, Enmore and Marrickville, and strangely, Balmain. My research was done through reports in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun newspapers, and memoirs of some of the originals, the much-loved and revered 78ers.

The way Buzz tells it, there was nothing gay — in the sense of bright and cheerful — in the way events turned out. This is an important part of Australian social history, not just for LGBTIQ+ people, but for all of us, to remember how our society has moved from bad to good, from oppression to grudging acceptance in some areas, and to hope for future shifts towards inclusion and acceptance for everyone.

In ‘I nearly got arrested’, she tells Harry about going to the International Gay Solidarity Day in Hyde Park:


got myself arrested. Wouldn’t a done me any good,

what with squattin’ illegally (yeah, yeah, I know, all

squattin’s illegal, smartarse), bein picked as a lesbian

I’d lose my job at the garage an WEA wouldn’t

want me teachin car maintenance anymore

Buzz went to the consciousness-raising protest day in Hyde Park with some of the girls from the Tin Sheds (more about them in a later post),where they listened to talks about

what life’s like

for homosexuals—gays AN lesbians, after Stonewall

in the US, an in England, where they’ve got that Festival of Light shit run by Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

The old bat’s comin here in a coupla weeks to speak

at a national conference on homosexuality, an she wants to tell us how wrong an evil we are, an how

we wanta destroy society. It was a beaut day

The march was planned for the evening, but Buzz dipped out, saying she had to start work early at the bakery in the morning. Lucky for her. She missed all the excitement and the horror that ended Australia’s first gay and lesbian march.

Like me, Buzz read about it in the papers. (I assume the police worded up the media  beforehand, like they did with the Greek migrants, to make a good front page story.) A huge group of people marching and singing along Oxford St at 11 pm, past the pubs and clubs and bars, gathering more people as they went, some estimates being around 2000. Until

The cops

Corralled em all in Darlo Rd that they’d closed

off an got stuck into them with batons an boots

(readin between the lines). They arrested 53

people…I coulda got caught too, if I’d gone with

the girls. Life’s tough when you’re not straight.

This is why the Mardi Gras celebratory parade — which gets bigger, louder, more flamboyant, and with more community groups and organisations taking part each year — marches, sings and dances down Oxford St, with the 78ers in the place of honour.

Note: For the sake of ‘poetic licence’ I put the police bashings in Darlinghurst Road (‘Darlo Rd’), when in reality the brutality was inflicted back at the cells. The cops weren’t going to  kick and bash unarmed people in front of  journalists and photographers.

[Information and photos from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives can be found on The Guardian Australia (TGA) website here. Note: The Guardian Australia has no connection with the 1970s Newtown and Balmain Guardian.]


You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices


Mardi Gras Festival, Part 1

look at the life of a gay man 40 years ago

Blurred picture of a gay rainbow flag

The last two weeks of February are celebrated in Sydney as Mardi Gras Festival, culminating on the first Saturday in March with the fantastical celebratory Grand Parade down Oxford Street. 2018 marks 40 years since the first March, held on Saturday June 24, 1978. We’ll hear about the Day of Solidarity and that March from Buzz in Part 2.

In Part 1 I want to look at the life of a gay man 40 years ago, as exemplified by Harry’s friend Jaroslav.

In 1970s Sydney, Jaroslav has two black marks against him: he is a Croatian migrant, AKA “a wog”. [It didn’t matter what nationality a migrant or “New Australian” was, they were termed “wogs” or “dagos”, often interchangeably.]

Even worse, he is a homosexual, AKA “a fag” or “poofta”.

We understand Jaro is gay through his reminisces of his poet/political activist lover, Damir in Zagreb.

He was so beautiful: those wide bright eyes

and curling light brown hair, his footballer’s legs

his wandering hands, his kisses.

 In outback Australia after fleeing civil war in Croatia, Jaro has brief encounters with men like him, mining at Kalgoorlie and Broken Hill. In Sydney, he finds his way to the fringes of homosexual society, beats in Hyde Park (the toilet block, and certain large trees), and in Newtown,

the toilets in Hollis Park.

It is in Hollis Park, as he is leaving the toilets —I’d hoped someone would come back to me— that he is retraumatised by the bombing.

However, when Harry and Jaro become friends, she has no inkling of his carefully hidden homosexuality, appreciating instead his courteousness: he’s such a gentleman and European sophistication. It’s not until Tom yells at her in the disco that Jaro’s a sad old poofta … he’s a fag, that she realises.

Unlike many gay men then —and up to quite recently— Jaro was never beaten up, bashed, stomped on, punched, kicked or stabbed just for being gay. Often these attacks were by gangs of men on streets leading to parks, or in the parks, regardless of whether they were actual beats.

Jaro’s friendship with Harry: meeting often at the Art Gallery, cafes and the ‘underground bar’, combined with his naturally discreet demeanour, may have protected him, acting as cover for his sexuality. Not that he was using her — he genuinely enjoyed her company — but it didn’t hurt that Harry believed Jaro was courting her.

Lock the toilets

Not one of the Guardian’s front page screamers, this was a small item, reporting a discussion at Marrickville Council on a motion “that public toilets should be closed at night to avoid any public nuisance”. I rewrote it as a prose poem.

Problems were caused by homosexuals, he said, who

frequented public toilet blocks after dark. “I don’t have 

anything against homosexuals,” Cr Broad told the Voice,

“but problems develop from their activities.” Asked what

were the problems, he declined to answer, but stressed

“We’ve got to stop these people loitering in the toilets

in the late hours of the night.” Homosexuals regularly

gathered in groups at Petersham Park, he said, and could

appear threatening to other people wishing to use the park

or its toilets. “Toilet blocks in Marrickville, Erskineville,

Enmore and Newtown are well known magnets for homosexuals.”

If this motion is passed all the public toilets ill be locked after dark.

When I moved to Newtown in 1997, all public toilets in Newtown and Victoria Park were permanently locked, day and night. The nearest available one was at Broadway shopping centre, 20 minutes walk away. I suspect the City of Sydney’s ordinance that cafes and restaurants must provide toilets for their customers was to get around the problem of permanently locked public toilets.

In 2001, I rented an apartment in Alpha House, (just round the corner from the infamous 2 Fitzroy St) and Hollis Park became my daily walk. Its toilet block was an ugly brick building fronting onto Wilson St with rusty bars and wire netting over the windows.

I didn’t take any photos of the park then, but after South Sydney Council demolished the toilets and magnificently refurbished Hollis Park, I took quite a few.

Hollis Pk corner 2006

Mardi Gras Festival, Part 1Hollis ParkThis is a corner of Hollis Park in Warren Ball Avenue, looking across Fitzroy St to the ‘60s public housing towers over in Waterloo.
You can read more about Newtown Voices, about me, and where to buy the book at newtownvoices