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More Than Just a Pretty Picture

By Tom Oliver Payne on October 29, 2021 in News

Where else would you rather be? Photo: Tom Oliver Payne

Bondi Beach is an international icon. On any given day, whether it’s winter or summer, tourists and locals can be seen photographing the Tasman Sea waves crashing onto sand. The beautiful Art Deco Icebergs hugs the rock face at the south end, with the bronzed swimmers in the water below nearly always making for an impressive photo.
The beautiful Bondi aesthetic has been recorded on blogs, websites and in magazines in every corner of the globe. But I often wonder if people know the importance of this place in the hearts and minds of Sydney locals. As our city opens back up, I certainly hope they do.
Almost every week until he was in his mid-90s, my brother, sister and I would pick my grandpa up from his home and take him down to his favourite beach. He was frail, shaking in his arms and legs, but was always determined to swim in the ocean. He would say to us, “The day I go to Bondi and do not swim is the day I die!”
We would often watch from afar, sometimes seeing him tumble in the waves, gasping for breath until a concerned onlooker would help him back to shore.
We would seldom help, as we were terrified of bruising his ego. Once back to the towels we would ask how his swim was. He would always respond with a determined smile, “Lovely!”
Like many of that generation, my grandpa had a tough life. He was hard as nails on the surface, but on the inside were scars of physical hardship and sadness. Occasionally, although with much difficulty, he would recall to us the years he spent in hospital beds, the day his sister tragically died when their house caught fire, or the moment – as a teenage boy – he left the farm he lived on in search of a new life in Sydney. Never to return.
With no formal education, money or family, he created a successful life for himself in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. Bondi gave him a sense of pride. It reminded him of how far he’d come. Throughout the 1940s, he spent afternoons on the beach with his friends, and then in the ‘50s and ‘60s he spent time there with his own family.
I’d often lay with my grandpa on the beach. We’d keep our eyes shut, feeling the strong sun hitting our skin and intermittently chatting about anything that came to mind. He was much easier to talk to at the beach. There was something about the atmosphere that would soften him.
Walking back up Campbell Parade, backpackers would stumble out of pubs and couples would walk hand in hand. My grandpa was always impressed by the energy of young people. He’d smile at them and often stop for a chat. Sometimes on a Sunday afternoon we would go to the Beach Road Hotel for a beer and game of pool, where he loved talking to the bar staff. Those few minutes of conversation could put a smile on his face for days. He got so lonely living on his own and would crave connection with the community.
When walking through the streets, he would explain to me how little the area had changed over the years. He told me how close the beach had been to having its own railway station. “I wonder if it would have been filled with skyscrapers now,” he once asked. “Who knows?”
It’s been almost a decade since he passed away, and I’ve since moved to Bondi myself. So many things will remind me of him. Icebergs’ Art Deco charm, forever stuck in time. Or a young person jogging – something he craved to do himself, as his own body got so weak. It’s warming that memories can be tied to the physicality of a place. As long as I’m in Bondi, I’ll always have them.