August 20, 2004

A Sense Of Place

Nothing about my life as a kid in Woy Woy -- or the area itself -- was particularly special, unusual, or interesting. Few who lived there thought of Woy Woy as either the greatest or the worst place on earth; life there was unexciting, uneventful, unexpectant. The trains ran mostly on time; I don't recall any murders or scandals, but there was a lot of petty crime; and there was the usual sense of Progress towards a future of bigger houses, bricks instead of fibro, more cars, real hospitals, local radio stations, telephones in every house, and properly-paved roads. On the other hand, I don't think of that time as having any narrative towards anything for me personally; it’s more a series of memories that came to an end when I was sent to boarding school in Canberra at the age of twelve (and entered another world entirely...).

There was a sense of place to Woy Woy and the surrounding areas that seemed to manifest itself mostly on the small scale -- this place has always been a bike shop, that a fish shop, this a butcher's (with sawdust floors, curved glass-topped counter displays, bone saws, and waist-high polished stainless steel package shelf) -- but not in the sort of strong loyalty, wistfullness, nostalgia or homesickness that a sense of place for (say) Berkeley or Brooklyn might imply. Woy Woy was the sort of place people came from; but you didn’t so much escape from it (that would imply something unpleasant about the place) as just find yourself somewhere else or drift to the cities. There's little to distinguish a childhood at that time in Woy Woy from one in (say) Bankstown, except for the ocean and the beaches.

(The funny thing was -- and still is -- that Woy Woy was well-known to both the rest of Australia and to large numbers of Britons because it was the butt of so many affectionate Spike Milligan jokes (more on him later...). Woy Woy never self-identified much with this -- it seemed to barely know about its image -- but if you ever said you were from Woy Woy, even in London, someone would smile and recall a few anecdotes they'd read in Punch or Private Eye... Even in Australia the name was considered a bit odd or funny; and, in the same way that Australia gets used as an abstract metaphor, or shorthand for remoteness, by people like Dickens or Tarkovsky, Australian writers (like Mandy Sayer) or humourists used Woy Woy as a shorthand destination (or lack of it?)).


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