Brick and mortar: revisiting homes and hometowns

We asked writers to dig up old memorabilia by trawling through old boxes and houses. Here's what they found.

This piece was part of our most recent edition, themed Hot Summer Nights and centred around suburban memories. Read the editorial here.

hometowns bob he

Baopu He
Eastwood, Sydney

Despite being occasionally assaulted with the smell of sewage while I walk down the main road, Eastwood is probably the only place in the world I can breathe easy. I stop and take it all in. The fragrance of fallen wisteria blooms, of spice infused oil, of freshly cut garlic, of home. Walking to the other side of the station the aroma changes. Now I smell notes of hair gel, kimchi, and barbeque smoke mixed with coffee beans. Similar to the old city of Jerusalem, Eastwood is divided into two distinct halves — Chinese and Korean. Thousands of kilometres away, the great Yalu river divides China and North Korea. In Eastwood, it’s the train station. No one really knows why this happened, but it’s been like this ever since I first stepped foot there as a nine year old. Over the next few years, it would become my after school playground, thanks to God’s gift to migrant parents: coaching college. Every day for more than a year, I’d spend up to four hours at coaching after school in a punishing cycle of trial tests and weekly report cards which told you with a cruel precision how you were doing.

But amidst this regime, I remember the carefree hour I had roaming the streets with my friends before class started. And while I learnt exam technique and algebra in the classroom, on the streets I learnt which of the $1 drinks at the Asian grocer tasted the best (Chilsung Cider), which lady at the chips shop sometimes forgot to charge extra for gravy (the young one who always wore pink) and how many Magic The Gathering booster packs the man running the games store would trade for a rare card (two if he was feeling generous but almost always one). Almost a decade later, the chips shop, Asian grocer and games store have all closed down, familiar brands like 85° Bakery and Gong Cha line the streets in their absence, and I have long graduated from the selective school I slaved away to get into. But the feeling remains. I walk back to the train station and a group of kids wearing my old primary school uniform rush past me, off to create their own Eastwood adventure.

hometowns reagan ward

Reagan Ward
Warsop, England
CW: Sexual assault

The area in which I grew up is unusual in that it has mass gravestones. They aren’t commemorating any one individual in particular, nor were they deliberately left standing by the locals, but these accidental memorials — disused colliery headstocks — give an imposing image of past reluctantly converging with the present. It’s quintessential England: working class overtures with Alan Bennett charm.

A place of worship has stood on the spot of the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul since Anglo-Saxon times, overlooking the playing fields from on high. Folklore runs rampant. I cannot remember how old I was when I first heard the story of the Roundhead soldier who was lashed to death on Cuckney Hill for raping a local girl.

I recently returned to Warsop with my mother. Between visits, I had begun trawling through my family history. It was as if I saw my hometown with new eyes. An unremarkable dwelling on Bainbridge Road has been continuously lived in by my relatives since my great-great-grandparents moved to Warsop in 1914. ‘The Hare and Hounds’, an old pub, had been run by some well-to-do forebears at the dawn of the twentieth century. I even noted the road on which my great-grandfather and his friends paused to ‘rest’ when bringing alcohol from the pub to their backyard party.

I have lived in Australia for over a decade now. I write ‘Australian-British’ when asked for my nationality. There are seldom any appropriate words for describing the disconnect someone might feel as they divide themselves between two identities. Instead, I might seek to capture its pathos. In the Irish song Amhrán Mhuínse, the narrator begs not to be buried in a distant land, away from her “people”. I might only say that I understand this impulse better than ever before.

hometowns jamie weiss

Jamie Weiss
Artarmon, Sydney

Sydney is a beautiful sprawl, a throbbing contagion of a city made up of over 650 suburbs, its tendrils stretching from the cold Pacific to the foothills of the Blue Mountains. Its delights and its secrets are many. But there is one secret deeper than the rest, which goes all the way to the top. ASIO, NASA, and the Bilderberg Group — they’ve all deceived us. Sydney — nay, the entire country, the entire solar system! — revolves around Artarmon. Artarmon is the centre of the universe! (Or at least that’s how it feels to me).

Artarmon is quintessential leafy North Shore, a quiet suburb nestled in the armpit of Chatswood. If it didn’t have a train station, it would probably fade into obscurity; a cultural curio like Zetland or Middle Dural. (I refuse to believe that Zetland exists — wake up, sheeple).

Yet Artarmon has much to offer. Paris has one Eiffel but we’ve got three — Channel 9, ABC, and SBS transmission towers punctuate the skyline. But perhaps what’s even more monumental is that it’s really still a village where everyone knows each other, a couple of traffic lights from the city, without a McDonalds. It has a little row of shops, a post office and a primary school. There’s a brothel behind the Subway. People here own a lot of dogs.

It’s this mediocrity that I love so much. The biggest paradigm shift in its history was a 7/11 moving in on the corner. But that’s what’s so great about it — in a rapidly changing and frightening world, Artarmon is a constant; a warm hug and a friend. Artarmon is the soft jangling of windchimes, possums fighting on the roof, running through sprinklers on a summer’s day. Artarmon is trampolining in a neighbour’s backyard, or stale panettone after Christmas, or falling off your bike and mum cleaning your knees up with Wiggles bandaids and kisses. Artarmon is mine.


hometowns joeJoseph Verity
Mittagong, Southern Highlands

I don’t know who these autographs belong to. I haven’t seen them in 10 years. The dizzying sense of accomplishment that must have accompanied me as I received them, leaning over the barrier at the SCG or at the end of some hour long queue, has long since dissolved, along with all involvement with cricket other than a seasonal interest.

But that’s not to say they’ve lost all significance to me. These autographs, scrawled in the back of one of my several copies of the Ultimate Cricket Fan’s Handbook, are relics of a childhood obsession — more than just a pastime, cricket was, in many ways, the focal point of my suburban upbringing. Saturday morning games became a stage for equal parts drama and boredom, inevitably extending out to an afternoon whiled away in front of whatever PlayStation 2 game was hot off the shelves. A bike ride to the nets with some friends the next day became a convenient excuse to make a detour to the bakery, and perhaps later to the pool. Christmas was punctuated by a yearly trip to the cricket, family barbeques by a driveway rendition of the game.

These memories orbit my subconscious, periodically resurfacing in much the same way my Fan’s Handbook did over the weekend. Like rediscovering these autographs, I’m often bowled over by how foreign these memories feel — faces to which I struggle to put a name, friends from whom I’ve drifted apart, childhood haunts which no longer exist. My childhood love affair with cricket may have been preserved by a decent memory and a penchant for autographs, but not even the indelible Sharpie can guarantee the preservation of nostalgia against the corrosive passage of time.

hometowns grace franki

Grace Franki
Edgecliff, Sydney

When I was 15 I asked a friend to go bushwalking with me in the Royal National Park. It was a sticky Wednesday in January — the kind of day we should have spent at the beach — but neither one of us would have suggested changing plans. We caught an early train to Heathcote, making bleary-eyed small talk and trying to puzzle out the paper map of trails. Lauren kept the map, I think, and I kept my train ticket to Heathcote. I liked her, and in my romantic teenage imaginings this could have been our first date.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Lauren had a crush on me too. We dated for a while later that year and I got to tell my sentimental story about sticking the train ticket on my wall.

I’ve spent the last week dismantling my childhood bedroom — I’ve moved out and my parents want to paint the pink walls beige. All the posters and polaroids of my teenage years are being neatly stacked in a box ‘for later’. I came across the train ticket, half hidden behind my corkboard where it was banished after Lauren broke my heart.

A red train ticket seems, like, so vintage in the days of Opal, so no one questions its place on my bedroom wall in my inner west sharehouse.

hometowns brendan

Brendan James O’Shea
Castle Hill, Sydney

My parents tell me that it wasn’t the first house we lived in. They note that our first house was in Ingleburn, but that doesn’t feel like a hometown to me. I never knew Ingleburn. I was two-and-a-half when we left, moving into a quiet hamlet in Castle Hill. Castlewood is the home of my childhood.

And it’s a childhood that in some ways still feels really close to me. Looking through old photos I spot an image of myself at what I can only imagine is a community pyjama party for toddlers, and flipping through them like some zootropic animation, it looks like Christmas. And there, in the centre of this crowd, is me holding onto my childhood stuffed toy.

It looks new, in that picture. I think about it its newness as I’m sitting in my room: a faded and worn reminder of childhood. Before I looked through these photos I thought it had always been so faded.

My old house looks like something of a static image of 2003. Maybe earlier — I remember my father repainted the wood panelling green some time before then. If it weren’t for the bush swallowing the stone mailbox, that old house would have looked much the same as it did 14 long years ago.

And in some ways, it’s a total anachronism compared to the rest of the suburb, cut off from time entirely.

Castle Hill’s CBD has changed — I remember the Piazza being built, a time when Terminus Street was livelier and busier and not a glorified detour to shunt buses off Old Northern Road. Fences cordon off construction on the North-West metro. But Castlewood is hidden behind trees at the bottom of a hill, and that bustling CBD is nothing but a shimmer of an aerial behind the canopy.

Perhaps, for better or worse, the worlds of our childhood are still there, hiding in sleepy nooks behind trees. An echo from another era.

hometowns cam

Cameron Gooley
Tumbarumba, Snowy Mountains

I grew up between two towns connected by a single road that wound through sugar pine forests, green valleys, and apple orchards. I was born in Tumut as the third of five children: an older brother, Tyrell, and older sister, Taryn, and younger brothers, twins Timothy and Brandon.

When I was 11 my family moved deeper into the Snowy Mountains to a town called Tumbarumba, where the largest business was an IGA. Tumbarumba was colloquially known as the incest capital of New South Wales due to its small population, and its exclusionary community. People from there were known as Tumba Two Heads, and are generally held in poor regard by most people in South-East NSW & North-East Victoria.

As you near Tumbarumba you come across a small bridge crossing a creek. The speed signs leading up to Jackson’s Bridge have had their paint ripped off by what I think are shotgun shells, although I’m no expert on firearms. My friend Rory used to laugh and hum the Twilight Zone theme song whenever we approached the bridge. These days I feel nothing but acute anxiety whenever I cross that threshold home to visit my parents.

Tumbarumba was, for all intents and purposes, an Arcadian hellhole. The homophobia, racism and misogyny there were toxic even by stereotypical small town standards. Tumbarumba is surrounded by stunning mountains and verdant green forests, but is terrifyingly isolating. My family didn’t own a car until I was about 16 or 17, and landline phones and Internet connections didn’t fit into my family’s budget, so Tumbarumba often felt like a cage I couldn’t escape. I was rarely able to communicate with my friends back in Tumut, which was difficult for a gay teenager in a rough town.

There is nothing for me back in Tumbarumba, but I do miss the greenery and the trees and the stars of the mountains. I miss July frosts, and wood fire heaters. But it’s hard to say I don’t like Sydney’s coastline.

hometowns jess zlotnick

Jess Zlotnick
Places, Sydney

My childhood is littered with memories ­— not of towns, but of homes. When my family immigrated to Australia we moved through a daisy chain of houses that would etch themselves into my memory. We’ve lived in our current home for the last 11 years, which means all my memories of old homes are from a different time, a different me. I drive past these old homes now. From the outside they look the same, the scale of them is intact with the scale I remember them. I’m afraid to ever enter these places again, because I know I will not recognise them; they will seem smaller, because I am larger; they will seem different because I am different.

hometowns karishma

Karishma Luthria
Mumbai, India

I went back to my childhood home to visit some extended family this winter. My family and I moved to a suburb not too far away 10 years after growing up in our family home, because we wanted a break from the entire Luthria family (believe me, living near your 80-year-old conservative and very opinionated Indian grandmother is not fun).

As a child, though, living in the same building as my cousins was amazing. But as the old saying goes: it’s all fun and games until one of your aggressive cousins makes you cry. I remember all the times my cousins and I would play basketball and every time I fell, they’d accuse me of crying crocodile tears. Or they’d try to prank my sisters and I by mixing paint in water to resemble Coca-Cola, before leaving it in the fridge for anyone who was gullible enough to drink it. It’d usually be my sister, who’d then proceed to spit it out faster than we could start laughing.

The structure of that building has now changed, and new inhabitants have moved in since I was a child. But when I stepped into my old room sans all my furniture, memories of hours spent listening to the Macarena (yes, I was obsessed with it), and all the times I spent cuddling my big plush dolphin flooded back.  

I guess what I realised most from this trip to my childhood home was just how much it’s influenced my perception of the world today — a place where you win some yet lose some, a place where there’s always something funny if you actively seek it, and a place that is full of change but not so much that it will drive you crazy, a place filled with our memories, until of course we lose them.

Art design by Michael Sun.