Saturday, March 23, 2019

Shot through like a Bondi tram

Being a streetcar aficionado I always take note when I see them mentioned in places I'd least expect. Like in Robert Hughes' memoir, Things I Didn't Know. In a single paragraph in the chapter on his childhood in Sydney he captures the lost romance and physical essence of those machines better than any specialist book I've read:

The form of transport I most liked, however, was the electric streetcar, known as a tram. Until the 1950s, the city and its suburbs were served by a network of these magnificent vehicles; they were scrapped, abandoned, their rails torn up and their overhead wires taken down, under pressure from the usual corrupt New South Wales politicians and their friends the lobbying gas company executives, who wanted all state-owned public transportation to convert to internal-combustion double-decker buses instead. Apart from its environmental consequences, this was an aesthetic blot: roaring unpleasantly and belching nasty clouds of carbon monoxide-laden exhaust, the buses were intolerably ugly and hard on the ears compared to the elegantly skeletal, slat-seated "toast-rack" trams, or even to their enclosed successors. You would ride the tram along New South Head Road, down past the old colonial lighthouse on South Head, to the end of the line at Watson's Bay. You wanted to lean out of the tram but the conductor usually stopped you. On its headlong descent it swayed deliciously around the tight curves in the sandstone cuttings, injecting a note of fairground mock peril into the trip. The day would be salty, blue, and blustering with the wind off the Pacific. The bogies rattled, the bell dinged, harmless sparks flew from the wires. The speed of these vehicles even contributed a saying to Sydney's argot: if someone ran away fast, or perhaps fled from an awkward social or sexual predicament, he "shot through like a Bondi tram." Trams, like the harbour ferries, were among the things that made Sydney a great place to be, especially if you were ten or eleven.

Hughes' writing is pure pleasure, whatever the subject. If I can manage it I hope to read my way through all his books over the next few years. I started with The Spectacle of Skill: Selected Writings of Robert Hughes awhile back, and I still think it's a good place to begin if you ever think to give Hughes a try.

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