BEN AND BELLA – and Life's Mysteries
There is an exhibition about the Warringah Expressway currently showing at the North Sydney Heritage Centre, a part of Stanton Library. Entitled ‘A Rift Through the Heart of North Sydney’, it marks the fortieth anniversary of the opening of the expressway and looks at its impact on the area. I grew up in North Sydney during this momentous upheaval to the district. When I visited the exhibition last week it rekindled many memories.
Over the years I have tried to document memories of my childhood environment, and some of the people who populated it, in song, poetry and prose. Residences and shops were demolished as the expressway carved its way to the Harbour Bridge, forcing many people to leave the area. Ben and Bella were two such folk who lost their little wooden home to the expressway.Situated at the top of my street, I used to catch the school bus in front of their little cottage. They lived in Alfred Street, just down from the Orpheum Theatre. From memory, their cottage was one of two situated next to a vacant block of land, apparently part of the Orpheum Theatre site. Remnants of film posters that had been plastered high above the theatre were often discarded there. A group of shops which included a mixed business, a butcher and a fish and chip shop was to the right of the cottages. Each cottage was fronted by a picket fence and two or three steps up to a small verandah. Although I never knew or spoke to Ben or Bella, I still remember them.
Ben and Bella were not their real names. My father assigned these names to them. Peg Maltby’s Ben and Bella series of children’s books, published in the second half of the 1940s, was most probably his source of inspiration. In my memory they were an elderly couple who dressed in grey clothing and lived in a home also shaded grey. Perhaps this lack of colour caused my childhood imagination to attach sinister feelings to the couple and their home. Just as I would superstitiously avoid stepping on the cracks in the street pavement, I felt a sense of relief if I boarded the school bus before sighting the couple each morning. As I have already said, I really knew nothing about Ben and Bella. My irrational behaviour was encouraged by a fear of the unknown.
Memories of Ben and Bella trigger reminders of my schooldays at North Sydney Demonstration School: of wanting to be ‘good, not get into trouble and please my parents’; of trying to make sense of those early, revelatory but bewildering, glimpses into life’s many amazing mysteries; of being confronted with varying truths from the adult world of authority; of desiring to do my best, despite everything else; of wanting to know more about the history of the country in which I lived.
It was near their little home when it suddenly dawned on me one afternoon while walking home from school that, without any beliefs to give life meaning, my existence was just book ended by absolutely nothing. The life experiences that filled the manuscripts of my existence so far would fade and disappear. It was quite a disturbing realisation and one that has revisited me throughout my life. Around the same time I started seeing the word ‘Eternity’ written in chalk on the streets of my neighbourhood. I could gaze into the Heavens above and believe I could see forever, but ‘forever’ still took some imagining. Like Anna Tellwright in Arnold Bennett’s Anna Of The Five Towns, I too now “ gazed at the stars and into the illimitable spaces beyond them, and thought of life and its inconceivable littleness, as millions had done before in the presence of that same firmament.”
I have tried to capture some of these thoughts and memories in a song I wrote last year about Ben and Bella.
I had been listening to some Dylan Thomas poetry prior to my writing the lyrics, which I had originally planned as a poem. Having the couple live in the cellar comes from the over-imaginative mind of a child fearful of the unknown. It also dovetails with the song’s rather fanciful, concluding suggestion that maybe they are still there! Anyway, their memory still lives on.
To a child, the world can appear a rather strange, beguiling place. Our childhood environment is where we tentatively begin to fill in the spaces and gain some meaning of things. I find it fascinating to return, through memory, to my childhood landscape, to meet again some of the people who lived there, to visit places once so familiar and to have another try at making sense of it all.
Read the lyrics to the song.
© Jim Low
July 16 2008