I grew up in Newy. And to be frank, I hated the fucking place. I mean, what’s not to love about half a million parochial, piss-head bogans living by the sea, right? Answer: lots. The minute I finished high school, I packed my bags, looked out to that harbour-side city skyline – one so perfectly defined by a tacky observation tower in the shape of a giant cock – sighed with relief, and uttered words I don’t recall exactly, but that went something along the lines of “Rot in hell, you bunch of half-wit, inbred fucks.”
“You’ll be back,” my mother would roll her eyes – quite offended, I suppose, by the implication that she was one such half-wit inbred fuck.
And you know what? She was right. But before that, I would end up in Sydney – kind of like my Emerald City (in that Fag Trapped In Kansas kind of a way) – finding solace in the nightclubs of the inner city districts where the piss-head bogans could no longer hurt us, and where all the people who for whatever reason had not belonged, finally did. It was a kind of love – the love we had been missing, and which any human instinctively searches for. And I will remember sitting on the pavement of William St, feeling that belonging as the sky began to lighten with the coming dawn, til the day I die.
Do I still go out and dance til the sun comes up? Very rarely. Now, I’m a functioning corporate wanker who wakes at dawn, and who, just last week, decided he might start jogging in the soft morning light that once signified his bedtime. But I will never renounce those years I spent in the nightlife of Sydney; and whatever parts of it I may cringe at (as anyone does, remembering the obliviousness of their youth), I would never deny any young, oblivious misfit their right to belong in those darkened spaces. I am thankful I experienced such a freedom. And, this week, those like myself are left to feel thankful we had the freedom to experience it in the first place.
There is a major difference, however, between myself and the thousands of club kids (whether youngin’s in their prime, or oldies acting on what are essentially now memories) who are angrily posting away on facebook. My personal experience of the new laws being imposed – not only upon the thousands of people who value the nightlife, but the hundreds of workers of the industry it essentially is – extends to an experience I know about firsthand, because I’m experiencing it today. Only a few weeks ago, I moved back to Newcastle. I live in the very epicenter of the district reshaped by The Newcastle Solution. And I like it.
I was still the young club kid when I first returned for a reunion stint with what, at the time, was really still the Steel City (now it’s the Coal and Wheat City – which just doesn’t really have the same ring to it), between 2002 and 2007. The Newcastle club scene was small in comparison to the theme-park of clubland that Sydney has always been; but it certainly existed, and I quickly became a fixture of it – both on the dancefloor and on the decks. I returned to study at the university here, and the friends I made on the few decent local dancefloors (along with the money I made playing records to them – considerably more than austudy) defined my experience of the place as a mid to late 20-something. Today, of course, many of those nightclubs are gone (like the infamous Mercury Hotel) – or at least are shadows of their former selves (like the fading Brewery), or have been forced to transform back into the classic pubs they previously were (such as The Clarendon). There are casualties of lockout laws, there’s no getting around it. It’s no coincidence that the only club I played at outside the Solution Zone is still going strong.
But the violence and abuse I encountered in and around these clubs was so pervasive, in the end I simply normalised it and learned to navigate it for my own safety. To play my 3am to 5am set at the Mercury (a gig that legally couldn’t exist, today), I would spend a good $30 of my fee catching cabs to and from the venue; because getting to the top end of town, alone, at those hours, was just too dangerous. I’d been pushed, and shoved, and yelled at, and saved by a variety of sliding doors, too many times not to know the odds. It was not a paranoid fear conjured by media and opportunistic politicians. It was a reality – one that, if anything, felt ignored – even condoned – by the good ol’ patriarchal Novacastrian culture. And it was sadly accepted by the decent people, like those I knew and danced beside, who didn’t seem to think it was out of the ordinary – I suppose because if you’d lived your life in Newy, it wasn’t. It was all around us. And it happened, to various degrees, to nearly all of us.
One night, even within the fifteen minute window waiting for my cab home, I was grabbed by the throat by a drunk piss-head – his grip so hard, I would wake bruised by it. Thankfully, he was so drunk, that grip never went any further; a second later, he was distracted, let me go, and moved on – probably til he grabbed some poor bastard who wasn’t so lucky.
There were countless other near misses for me – I could randomly pick any one of dozens. Though I often laugh, all these years later, about the night at The Brewery when, half way through my DJ set, I was approached by a bogan in a Newcastle Knights jersey who somewhat aggressively asked “What’s this shit? Haven’t you got anything with words in it?”, at the time, it wasn’t the slightest bit funny. It was particularly unfunny, once he’d held up his empty glass, and threatened to smash it and stab me in the face with it, if I didn’t play something more to his taste.
He didn’t – I was the DJ, and I had him thrown out. But again, I had been lucky, and I knew far too many weren’t. I personally knew of one “King Hit” (now recast as the “Coward Punch”) that resulted in death, and of countless hospitalisations for all sorts of rather severe assault injuries. And I’d witnessed countless strangers carried out of bars, covered in blood. The Newcastle nightlife was not like Sydney’s. It felt nothing like freedom.
And it’s important to remember that none of it was new. Not only was Newcastle a violent place in the years when I grew up here (and so too, the years before that) – it was much, much worse. None of what I experienced as a 20-something Newy DJ dude comes anywhere near its horrific history of testosterone and alcohol that stretches back to its origins – clubs like the brutal Jolly Roger, and of course the infamous Star Hotel (so famous for its classic ‘Strayan violence, Cold Chisel wrote a beloved national rock anthem about it). The Star Hotel, we should apply logic and recall, was a 4000-strong drunken riot that erupted in the Newcastle nightlife because the patrons were told the pub had finally been closed and they were to go home. So, you know, perspective and whatnot.
In this way, the contemplation of the Newcastle Solution, and now the potential Sydney Solution, presents a difficult confound, because one man’s Draconian Police State is another man’s Enlightenment. Did we here in Newy really exist, all those years ago, in a culture where not only did the Star Hotel riot happen, but in which it became strangely revered, in a better state of freedom which we have had taken from us by today’s oppressors? Or have we become a better society which no longer tolerates the oppression of male violence to the same extent? Where do we draw the line on the line Newcastle drew a few years ago?
I confess I can’t quite yet decide on the answer. But I do know that by the time I finally left Newcastle and returned to Sydney at the end of 2007, I’d by then stopped DJ’ing and clubbing in the city, and lived with my partner in an apartment across the road from the volatile Mercury Hotel area; and that on weekends, we’d make sure we had bought our cigarettes by nightfall, to avoid walking three blocks to the convenience store, once the Newy Boys had come out. I would hear packs of them, outside my window, grunting and yelling, trying to rip street signs out of the ground (hear those alphas ROAR!), and think; “My God, these people shouldn’t be allowed out”.
And I know that five weeks ago, I returned, much older, to live in an apartment not too far from that place, to find that even though they can’t technically be stopped from going out, they have now been robbed of the places they would go out to. As a result, the city is unrecognisable. I love it. The first weekend I was here, I ran out of cigarettes, and instinctively thought, “Well, I shouldn’t go out now and buy them – it’s midnight. I could be bashed.” But after a good hour of deliberation, my addiction got the better of me, and out I went – cautiously and, to be honest, slightly afraid – to walk two blocks to the 7/11 at the start of Newcastle Mall (a place we wouldn’t dare walk into alone at night, years ago). And when I arrived there, I found the darnest thing… nobody. The mall was empty. On the opposite corner, where once the abhorrent club, Frostbites, would entertain a bunch of horrible young men intimidating each other as they tried to fuck horrible young women, I found instead a handful of skinny late-teen twinks. Frostbites was now a gay bar called Unity. Years ago, at the local gay bar that existed in the red-light district just out of the city precinct, patrons would line up at the door upon leaving, and be escorted to their cars by security (poofter bashing in the dim-lit streets around the bar was a local “sport” for drunken Newy lads on a night out). And here I was, in 2014. I stood there, with my mouth open, in the middle of the fucking mall, comprehending what had happened. And a few seconds later, I smiled. I mean, look at those skinny little twinks! In Newcastle. On a weekend. At midnight. At the fucking mall.
They’re free. And the Newcastle Solution has given them that freedom.
But it’s not just the twinks at Unity. It’s basically anyone other than the young white male fuckwits these places become, through a kind of social terrorism, the territory of. Women are also more free. The problem with the current debate centered around Bazza’s adaptation of the laws is that they play into a ludicrously simplistic media narrative (turned public paranoia) around single punch assaults; but these alcohol hot spots are male dominated areas and, as usual, we focus on male-to-male violence (poor innocent budding lads’ lives stolen by deadbeat thug lads, etc) at the expense of noting that women are also their victims. It is no coincidence that gender splits are always vastly disproportionate in this kind of nightlife – only an idiot would suggest otherwise of Kings Cross, and it was the same here in Newcastle. Many women stay away for a very good reason. And I’ve found it odd, over the past couple of weeks, to see women walking around Newcastle at night, by themselves. A female friend of mine who also grew up here recently visited me, and we walked past the local Civic Park where, in her teen years, two of her classmates were raped. Understandably, this place triggers all sorts of things – but this summer, she looked at what is now a place disconnected to the things that past triggers. Because it is finally Newcastle’s past, too. If they were teenagers now, there’s a good chance their lives would not have been destroyed in the way they were – Civic Park is yet another place you once wouldn’t have dared walk into, that is now pretty harmless.
Older demographics are also out and about – the city no longer a playground for the brutal brand of young and “virile”. Countless upmarket wine bars with midnight licenses have sprung up, catering to their needs. They don’t mind the closing times – they don’t turn into pumpkins, needless to say. And there’s a range of new bars filled with young people who aren’t complete jerks, because they can go out without worrying about being attacked by young people who are.
But it’s also more than just the pubs and clubs. Restaurants where patrons don’t have to fear dodging drunks on their way out to the car have now flourished. The once doomed cinema, originally opposite what was one of the city’s most violent bars, has changed hands and managed to survive. The bar has closed. Patrons happily exit late night movie sessions, no longer wondering if they will be assaulted.
Some of the other bars belonging to the scary world of Old Newcastle are on their last legs, but trying desperately to shake their baggage to survive – forced to find new identities that exist outside of violent piss-fests. And sure, only some will succeed. The Crown & Anchor’s transition to gay club has extended its life; but the infamous Brewery, once the most successful nightspot in town, is finding transformation more difficult, and is now thought to be near its end.
But even if these struggling bars don’t make it with their current reincarnations and owners, in the end, they will be reborn – if not as pubs, then as something else. For every business’ death in Newcastle, several seeds spring to life. Add to this, the revival of real estate, as the area becomes attractive to a market who once wouldn’t weather it like I used to do – which has then led to more local businesses catering to the changing and increasing area demographics. It’s not just the same place minus late night pubs and clubs. It transformed everything – the psychological and the physical transformation symbiotic. There is an optimism in the air. You can feel it. It’s nice. It’s amazing what freedom did to Newcastle.
And if you can’t come here and see it for yourself – or you never experienced what it was like beforehand to appreciate how profound the change has been, then see it instead in the statistics. Since introducing The Newcastle Solution, the number of licensed venues in the area has risen 25%. Best of all, drunken assaults have dropped over 30%. And in a city with the levels of violence Newcastle has always suffered from, that translates to literally hundreds of innocent people being spared violence perpetrated against them. But sure, the 30 odd club kids who used to dance til dawn no longer can do so.
That’s not to say I am blind to the socio-philosophical dilemmas in this kind of “solution”, and not to say that I am using my personal experience of the transformation of Newcastle to trumpet the proposed Sydney Solution. Far from it. I would, however, say that there are stark differences to be sighted between the two areas, and likewise some similarities – and both should be seriously considered, if one is to truly grasp what is wonderful, or what is horrible, or perhaps some strange mix of both. Much, much more is to be sacrificed in Sydney – including any remains of the kind of world I found my freedom in there, as a 21 year old. And to compare the two places in terms of their geo-cultural complexities (or, in the case of Newcastle, a relatively simplistic mono-cultural area confined to a compartmentalised peninsula) is ludicrous. The public want Bazza to “do the same thing to Sydney”, but it won’t have the same results – because, hello, Sydney is not the same place. Perhaps the NSW media would like to report more on Melbourne which, in the same week, dumped its similar, recently introduced laws, as a result of increased violence during the lockout period?
Yet perhaps the difference between the program’s success in Newcastle and failure in Melbourne is that the Melbourne trial, like the proposed Sydney Solution, is only one element of the Newcastle package – something I’m finding many “out of towners” (as we call you lot, here) don’t realise. I’d suggest a powerful factor of the Newcastle Solution was not only that they forced people to stop drinking earlier, but the introduction of ID scanners for problem pubs. In the Solution Zone, every partier is required to have their ID scanned for entry into any potentially problematic venue. This ID is attached to a database that gives the venues themselves a level of legal control (in order to address the problems much earlier than when they escalate to a higher level where police are brought in). If for any reason a club throws a patron out, the incident is recorded on the database. There are no strikes – from that moment, you’re banned from the designated venues. If you try to get in anywhere else, it shows up the minute your card is scanned, and you’re told to fuck off. It works for obvious reasons. It penalises those who are in the wrong, without impacting those who are playing fair – pinpointing them, and not just making them go to bed earlier, but blocking them out of the picture, altogether. And I’d feel much more comfortable – in fact, completely comfortable – if Sydney were to implement this element of it, instead. But, of course, it’s much simpler and cheaper for Bazza to tell venues to close earlier, and hold a press conference announcing that he did what the people wanted.
What those opposing the Sydney Solution are failing to do in response to Bazza is offer an alternative, better solution. They must – must – do this. The public want action. And to be fair, they’re entitled to it. In my last stint in Sydney, I wouldn’t step foot anywhere near the Cross – a place I once enjoyed many a long night in, but which has deteriorated into nothing like what it used to be, and pulsates with an aggression that reminds me far too much of Old Newcastle. It’s vile. I’ve seen countless acts of violence on the streets there, and I’ve nothing against it being curbed. There has to be a way for the area to get its freedom back – without killing it for everyone with the legal equivalent to antibiotics. That’s the major difference to Newcastle, and that’s what is missing here. But Kings Cross is fucked, and something needs to give, and it’s high time the club scene admitted it. Yes, the public have latched onto two particular kinds of incidents because of their media narrative potency; but they do remain symbolic of a greater problem, and it’s deceptive to pretend otherwise. It’s not an unreasonable thing for the public to want innocent people protected from aimless, drug fueled violence. They’re just getting a dud response that they’re too worked up and ignorant to see is a dud.
Whatever happens, a change for the Sydney culture is inevitable. And if the proposed laws go ahead, I will certainly be sorry to visit my once beloved Emerald City – a place so dear to my heart in a way that is so intrinsically linked to its nightlife – to see the impact of such transparent political trumpeting upon a world that has done nothing to deserve its own demise, and that means so very much to so many people. Of course, those people are angry, and hurt, and – without exaggeration for those who find their identity and freedom in it, as I did when I was younger – probably a little frightened. For who are they to be now? And wherever will they be free?
If you ever want a break from it, you’ll know where to find me. It’s better here than you probably think.