Days of Wine and Roses

House in Glebe with Germaine Greer mural


Sydney’s bohemian Push had its romantic moments, writes Dugald Jellie

She wore red stockings and black turtlenecks and hung out with a bohemian crowd.

Writers, raconteurs, poseurs, punters, seers, intellectuals, they all drank schooners nightly at a corner pub on Sussex and King.

Her cheekbones were high, her legs long. She sang and danced. She was young and in love and travelling light in a new city, with a head full of Byron, from one rented room to another–when on a summer’s day all those years ago, she crossed the water and moved to Glebe.

“I think it was 1961,” remembers Roelof Smilde, a Sydney Push habitue who worked casually as a wharf labourer.

“Germaine and I moved into a flat in one of the mansions on Glebe Point Road.

She wanted to be close to uni. She was full of ideas, full of questions. I was nine years older. It was her initiative, not mine. I didn’t mind where we lived.”

They found vacant servants’ quarters at the back of a Victorian villa that had seen better days. Rent was cheap. The location was handy. It had running water.

Germaine Greer was in the Glebe.

Masquerade serves well a big city, with all its illusions, the ceaseless spectacle, personal freedoms, and where one’s identity can be changed at will. We live in a community of strangers.

As it was in late 1959, when two people met over a table at an upstairs Greek restaurant in Castlereagh Street. They would soon share a mattress and kiss under electric lamplight. Quarrel and split bills. And at parties mix with the people Barry Humphries later called, “middle-class desperates, journalists, drop-out academics, gamblers and poet manques and their doxies”.

Here was the Sydney Push and Greer presumably was the doxy.

She unpacked books and bags for a last time in Australia, making a home before The Female Eunuch and her pin-up status for bra burning in the 1970s sexual revolution. It was before the TV appearances, the speaking circuit, and her written denouncements of everything from Steve Irwin to Princess Diana to pap smears.

Cars queued on Wigram Road in the shadows of the Friday night lights of Harold Park. Wagers were placed with SP bookies, in back rooms found through rear lanes. These were working class haunts, tough-luck pavements with timeworn cottages stepped up from the dog track, with petty crime and a butcher shop on every other corner.

“Life was hard, but we knew no better way,” says local resident Kevin Hilferty. “We accepted things as they were. We were loyal to our school, our parish, our country, the Balmain football team and the Labor Party.”

Not Greer. She’d just turned 22 and had no interest in rugby league. She dressed up instead to perform in Sydney University reviews. She tutored in English literature and worked on a thesis on romantic poetry. She mingled in libertarian circles, brushing in terrace hallways against the likes of Robert Hughes, Frank Moorhouse and the late Paddy McGuinness.

P.P. McGuinness, the turncoat and Leichhardt councillor who once tried to secede Balmain from the mainland, in Anne Coombs’ Sex And Anarchy recalled Greer’s charisma.

“When she first moved up from Melbourne, she was the parody of the bohemian girl, wearing a long dirndl skirt, long hair over her shoulders, smoking a pipe. For the 1950s it was terribly daring.”

Smilde remembers mostly the short shorts. And the black.

“Black dresses and black mascara.” It was late 1959.

“I was certainly attracted to her. She came up to visit in university holidays. I was a knockabout sort of character. She asked if it would be all right if she moved to Sydney. And I said yes.”

The two lived in North Sydney, then moved together to Glebe Point Road.

“I can’t remember the number,” says Smilde. “It was down by Boyce Street.” Trams had not long ended, the Saturday matinee at the Astor was in its last hurrah.

They stayed 18 months. Greer later left for England and Smilde, just like the 434 bus, trundled further along the waterfront. “I hooked up with a girl and ended up in Balmain.”