My work has brought me back to a major stepping-stone in my life, and in a rather peculiar way. For the seven years I lived at the Student Village, and in particular the five years I spent within the college of Chifley, we often contemplated what went on behind the high fences surrounding the Maribyrnong Immigration Detention Centre. This week, work gave me an assignment of actually finding out and reporting on just that. The temptation to revisit the village was too great to ignore, and I found myself revisiting a part of my life put to bed long ago, yet still feels like yesterday.
A small segue aside, I recently clicked over the start of my third year in Canberra. I’m not sure what happened to the plan of only being here for six months, but it hasn’t turned out that way. It has got me thinking of how I’ve had a tendency in the past to settle readily in an area. Today, I revisited the place where I spent the first seven years of my independent life. I left the village in 1999 with a strong sense that I would never return, and until now, had resisted the temptations to step beyond the gates once more. This time around, I felt a compelling need to reconnect with my youth.
The last time I visited this area was in 2003, when as an employee at Netspace, I ran part of their Grand Prix promotions, which included a visit to the nearby Highpoint Shopping Centre. Back then I didn’t really have a lot of time to explore the place, and at that time, I actually didn’t feel a driving need to. I noted some of the substantial changes, and was amused that even four years after I had moved away, there were still a high number of faces in the crowds that I recognised from my years at the Village. I didn’t go back to the Village, though I have to admit to driving past it on Williamson Road, looking in at the old decrepit buildings, and trying to note the subtle changes in the exterior, before turning down into the still emerging Waterford Green, which for most of my time at the Village had been an ammunition factory.
This time, I decided I had to take a look around. So after leaving the Immigration Centre, I walked in through the Chifley-Dalton carpark, the same entrance I’d used most days on returning from Highpoint or from classes in Footscray (or in later years, St Albans and then the CBD). It was an odd sensation to say the least. I vividly remember kicking the footy in the little wedge of turf between Carey and Calder houses, with friends from Chifley and other colleges. I even caught it once—with my forehead—after Benjy coming in for a specky from behind distracted me just long enough to take my eye off the ball1.
In the Chifley-Dalton laundry, I suspect the same coin operated washing machines are still in use as those of 10-15 years ago, and I was heartened to see evidence of engineering students still at work to side step the commercial venture, by ‘encouraging’ the coin slots to operate without using coins. In the Chifley courtyard, several of the features built during the time I was there still remain, though there have been some additions in the area of garden sculptures. For the most part however it remains as it was when I moved out of the college twelve years ago.
Walking through the rest of the campus, I noted some of the changes that had gone onÃ¢â‚¬â€?weather sails above the benches in front of the admin block, the gym had moved out of the converted garage and into converted classrooms (presumably more space, but still issues with ventilation); and those that hadn’tÃ¢â‚¬â€?the Hanga still appears to be used as a party venue. In the late nineties, a number of orientation boards went up around the campus to help people find their way through the meandering pathways to the colleges they were trying to find. On revisiting this time, I noticed the western half of the complex (formerly known as Gilmore) had been covered over. I remembered getting a feeling something had happened to Gilmore previously, and so went for a look.
Walking out past the tennis courts, I remembered my first day on the campus, where as part of my orientation I was led around by the House Tutor, Kate Hosking, and I met some of the senior residents of my houseÃ¢â‚¬â€?Dave Finlay, Andrew Ham and Josh (canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t remember his last name, sorry Josh) who were all playing tennis. They were in their second year at the village and despite them sharing similar country roots to myself, seemed old hands at this city living thing. In later years IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d gone onto these courts in a slightly2 inebriated state with a couple of the girls from Chifley, thinking we could play tennis by moonlight (it was a full-moon, and as I mentioned, I was a bit drunk). As Saunder will tell testify, I had trouble seeing or getting to a tennis ball sober and in full daylight, so itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s unsurprising we had trouble seeing the balls or each other in darker environs, though at one point the balls had no trouble finding mine, and that was the end of the match.
The old bird aviary was still standing empty, as I imagine it has for the entire ten years since its owner cleared out the inhabitants and moved elsewhere. Between the tennis courts and the immigration centre where IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d been working the last two days, was the basketball court. It was the scene of another late night match (again involving alcohol), whereby half an hour of a number of inebriated youths shouting at each other drew a tired and cranky (and somewhat intimidating) campus Manager from his residence, whose torchlight, and subsequently full attention, landed on Kieran for having glass in the Village3.
Beyond the sports courts used to be Gilmore. These days it has been fenced off, and is no doubt being prepared for demolition as the housing developments encircle the campus (including the famed Telstra Tower we all thought about climbing4). The Phillip Rec Hall, sitting between the sports courts and Gilmore, was the scene of a large number of Village Balls in my earliest years there, as well as an entertaining (at the time) collision between SteveÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s nose and my head, not to mention the sight of Lachlan running out of the bathroom in a white tuxedo, aqua planing on the spilt beer and landing spreadeagled on his back in the muddy sludge. Years later I repeated the same trick in the Hanga, but without the white tuxedo.
In 1995 the Ball drifted out to a nearby Marquee, and the scars of the Recovery mud-wrestle are still visible in the earth today. In 1996 the ball was held in the Hanga to try and make use of the recent renovations there5. In 1997 when I took stewardship of the Ball, I took it back to the Philip Rec Hall, as it turned out for the last time, as the hall has been condemned along with Gilmore, and both are wearing the scars of vandals and neglect. I imagine that if ever I revisit the place again, these structures will most definitely be gone, perhaps even the entire Village itself.
From the Village I went to Highpoint6, walking a familiar path along Williamson Road, and just like in the old days, getting caught in the open by the weather. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a number of large urban reclamations going on around this part of the city, where large tracts of industrial land have been revitalised into housing and commercial ventures. On the corner of Williamson Road I noticed a DominoÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s and a Bottle ShopÃ¢â‚¬â€?it brought a smile to my face to think of the lengths Cynthia went to one drunk night to get a Pizza delivered to the Village7, and of how at one point, the Village had accounted for 5% of bottle shop sales at the nearby Safeway8, a fact I found quite believable one day when I helped Daniel and a few others wheel out a couple of shopping trolleys full of slabs. I had no doubt what market research produced these two new stores closer to the Village, and wonder if it has such a footprint at Safeway these days, or if the sales figures have moved a little closer to the front gate.
Once in Highpoint, I walked each floor a few times, remembering as I walked past Myer, the first time I went in there and bought a shirt; or that Sanity used to be Brash’s, and that centre stage was once on level 2 (I remember seeing Boom Crash Opera launch their last successful album on that stage). Back then level 1 was a seedy undeveloped zone where only a very basic Hoyts, and a few candy shops existed, though the Pancake Parlour was always there. I remember going to the happy hour at the Tabaret near Hoyts, and how when Hoyts started their late night sessions at Highpoint, they sold tickets for just $5, and Villagers flocked there in droves to make it an instant success.
In the years since, every level of the centre has been developed and extended, and it’s still wanting for space. The Pancake Parlour used to have an external view, but it’s since been hemmed in by the overflow of new stores spilling out along the entries to the centre.
What I noticed most of all, was that none of the familiar faces of ex-Villagers greeted me from the crowd. This time around, the only record of me ever having been in this complex was in my own memories. It struck home hard to me that, were it not for these, there would be no record of me having been in this place at all, yet it had been a central focus of my life for close to a decade.
Revisiting all these memories in the space of a few hours made me think of how, as a child, I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t understand how old people would go on and on about their youth. Especially during my teens, I saw it as a period I never wanted to look back on. I accepted some years ago that my youth was gone, and I have to admit that I do miss it greatly. I often find myself casting back to a time when I had ambition, and the energy to pursue it. These days I still have the ambition, but the energy is fading, and in some ways I find myself wishing IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d cut the umbilical cord of the Village many years earlier so that I could step out into the world as I have been doing more recently. In light of recent disappointments I wonder if IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve left my run too late, that perhaps the years I spent enjoying my life at the Village, couldÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve been spent enjoying life in the Andes, the Rockies, or in Europe.
Would I have made a more lasting impression in those places, or would I be returning there a decade later, searching for the ghost of me?