Hometown power

TOM Jones croons about it, Hollywood puts sepia filters over it, and it seems that everyone has a soft spot for a hometown. Something about the place of our birth or early childhood draws us back, something powerful. I am drawn, for example, to my hometown of Grafton, and I experience a particular emotion when I visit, yet the attraction is not the mundane streets where I lived until I left before my teens.

It is the streets of the old parts of Grafton, the houses with their unusual architecture, the grand trees that almost always pull me off the highway for an hour or so as I’m driving north and returning south. But whenever I’m there I experience something more than these physically identifiable things, something as vague as a presence.

Nostalgia? Of course, but I’m not conscious of the beautiful old houses and the grand trees having an impact on me as a child. I am, though, aware of a certain aura I cannot better describe.

Occasionally as I drive through featureless and forlorn towns I wonder whether these have a hometown pull on anyone. Of course they do, and in some cases I know people drawn to them, but it beats me how!

Hometown power was very evident in an email I received this week from a woman who left Newcastle 65 years ago. Raie Levy – Raie Gubbay when she left as a young woman to go to Melbourne, where she married and lives now – was prompted to write to me by a copy of my recent column, ‘‘Whingers found out’’, challenging the validity of the cheapskates who voted Newcastle to be one of Australia’s least liveable cities.

The column arrived among clippings sent by people Mrs Levy exchanges letters with 65 years after she left!

How’s this for getting on with your neighbours? After Mrs Levy’s parents moved to Melbourne from Lindsay Street, Hamilton, in 1955, her mother, Mrs Gubbay, corresponded with their Lindsay St neighbour, Mrs Nolan, until Mrs Gubbay died in 1981. Raie Levy took over the correspondence with Mrs Nolan, who died a couple of months ago at age 95, and now Mrs Nolan’s daughter, Jan, has taken over the correspondence with Mrs Levy.

Mrs Levy, in her mid 80s, wrote to me as, she said, someone who loves Newcastle. Here is the full email, and you'll see that the power of hometown doesn't seem to wane.

"Are you looking for a letter from someone who loves Newcastle?

"I left Newcastle 65 years ago and my life there is crystal clear in my mind and my heart. I was luckier than most kids - my dad was 'Gubbay the lolly man', agent for White Signets (now Mastercraft), Allens, Lifesavers and other manufacturers and wholesalers in Sydney. I remember every pot hole in the road and the exact spot during the war to turn off the engine and just glide to stop right in front of the shop to save petrol.

"I remember so well Mr Newey who had a milk bar in Beaumont Street (I still correspond with his grandson) and his brother who had a milk bar at the Mayfield tram terminus. Peter Scott (a Greek) had a milk bar next to the Civic Theatre and his brother had one next to the Victoria in Perkins Street. How I loved Steel Street, where the Chinese had their vegetable shops, and 'Chinky' whom I loved and from whom dad bought his freshly roasted peanuts.

"Mr Beatton had the milk bar at Merewether Baths and I used to work there on a Sunday. I loved my wages - 10 shillings and all the ice cream I could eat! I remember the Christmas when he stocked the shop full of ice cream and drinks and then it rained solidly from Christmas to New year.

"We lived facing Gregson Park and the Anzac dawn service was so wonderful. My uncle's name is on the cenotaph in the park, as he died in Ypres in the First World War.

"Sunset was magic in our street. We were all on the front veranda waiting for the ice cream cart to come along and we'd all get penny ice creams. And there was the bottle-o buying bottles and selling clothes props.

"And summer nights the men would be playing tennis right opposite our house (the women played on courts

facing James Street) and children played in the fenced-off playing area, and the elderly men played chess on the large chess board on the ground, and best of all, the Hamilton Brass Band would play in the bandstand right in front of our house.

"Beaumont Street was everybody's shopping centre and little Phyllis Mook, who couldn't see over the counter, would serve in the greengrocery, and Gows had everything you needed for mending clothes and of course there was the Roxy Theatre. And best of all MY SCHOOL, Hamilton State School, was just across Tudor Street.

"Every morning I'd get up early to watch the Chinese asleep in their horse and carts going down Tudor Street to take their produce to Steel Street. Lake Macquarie was as far as holidays stretched in the 1930s and 40s and Sunday afternoons at Belmont, Swansea or Warners Bay were our holidays. Shopping in Hunter Street was a delight with all the department stores - The Co-op, Winns, Scotts, Johns, Breckenridges.

"I feel sorry for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who consider school something to be 'got over as quickly as possible'. I loved Hamilton State School, where the headmistress of the infants school was Miss Lambert and of the upper school Miss Atkinson. Newcastle Girls High was the ultimate and I sat on the steps and cried all day after I had finished 5th Year. [Mrs Levy was dux of Newcastle Girls High and she tells me that the girl she beat by one mark, Margaret Young, lives still at Belmont.]

"How can anyone rate Newcastle so low on liveability? The beaches, the lake, the river - THE WHOLE PLACE - is just wonderful. Sure, it was dusty in my days, and the steam trains going to Sydney belted out their smoke (especially on wash day).

"Rank Newcastle as Number One!"

Is your hometown more than just a town? What are your memories of it?

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