Trams and the national psyche

As the text implies, this is a 1989 talk, originally written for a conference of light rail enthusiasts, but the theme got me going, and so it saw a larger life.

It was a warm, Sydney summer's morning that day, and Sydney Harbour was packed from crowded shore to crowded shore with flag-covered boats. The boats, in their turn, were also crowded, loaded to the very gunwales with festive Sydneysiders, excited holiday-makers, all agog and waiting for their long-anticipated Great Day.

High up above the boats, traffic on the Harbour Bridge had slowed to a standstill, as more and more people and vehicles tried to pour into the choked city. The passengers in the buses and cars, wedged in the traffic jam, sweltered in the heat and fumes, but nobody cared or complained, not one little bit.

It was a typical humid Sydney morning, the sort of morning when even the freshest, most crisply-ironed summer clothes will cling, limp and moist, to any part of you that touches the seat. Yet even the morning's clammy humidity didn't put the celebrators off, for this was to be a special day.

No, it wasn't Australia Day, 1988, it wasn't last year's Sydney celebration of the Big Bicentennial Binge. The morning that I'm recalling for you now was a full generation earlier, a third of a century ago, in many ways a forgotten and distant era.

It was in February 1954, that a brand-new queen, radiant, we called her then, came to Australia, the first reigning sovereign to grace our shores, and there was no doubt at all in our minds that she did grace our shores, simply by stepping onto them.

It was a Royalist, even an Imperialist age, and republicans kept their heads well down in those days, for this was a time when we still all celebrated Queen Victoria's birthday, which we grandly called Empire Day. Most of us didn't know it was the old girl's birthday, but we kids knew the value of the day, or at least the value of the night that followed.

Realists were soon to change its name to Commonwealth Day, and soon after that, they'd scrap it altogether, as the Winds of Change blew ever colder, and the sun set on the old empire, and we got television and stopped getting poliomyelitis. But in those days, in Sydney, Cracker Night and unthinking red-white-and-blue patriotism were all rolled up into one neat package.

We kids had no doubt at all about where we stood. And where we stood was that we all stood at the end of the movies, to listen to a scratchy version of "God Save", as even scratchier images flickered across the screen. We might've been strong on patriotism, but not as strong as the parsimonious cinema proprietors were on penny-pinching.

Only the truly daring would rush out at the end of the movie, travelling fast, so as to be out of earshot when the National Anthem started, for if they could still hear the music as they fled the theatre, then even the most daring would stop, frozen to the spot by some magical, musical, patriotic spell. Everybody was automatically British in those simple days, even those whom we quaintly termed "New Australians".

So red, white and blue were everywhere that day, hanging from the light poles, strung round the doors of houses like Christmas decorations, up and down the ten-storey skyscrapers in the city, the grandest we could do in those days, there was red white and blue in the ribbons in girls' hair, and even on the milk bottle tops.

And we all thought it right and proper, you see, for Royal fever was everywhere. So the swelterers in those buses on the bridge suffered their discomfort stoically, even happily -- it was all worth it to be part of this National Special Day.

But while the road passengers boiled bravely away, up there on the harbour bridge, there were those who crossed Sydney harbour in comfort, free of the sweltering clammy heat of the buses and cars, carried swiftly and coolly along to their destinations.

They weren't riding in the lovely old steamers that chugged beautifully out from Manly, with their open engine-rooms, pits of mystery for all small boys, and maybe for small girls too, but I wouldn't know, pits of mystery from which warm air, tasting deliciously of hot oil and hotter brass, gusted up at you as you hung perilously over the edge, heedless of mothers' warnings, watching the pistons. No, it wasn't in the Manly ferries.

And it wasn't in the shuddering vibrating timber launches, the inner harbour ferries from less-well-favoured places like Mosman and Cremorne and Kirribilli, for these, like the Manly ferries, had all been stopped on account of the harbour being chockers with boats.

To cross the harbour in style that day, you travelled by rail. Not in the sardine-packed, impersonal and snooty North Shore trains either, but in trams, on the eastern side of the bridge, where the Cahill Expressway lanes are today.

What beautiful things those trams were. Nice, cool, open vehicles where you could look out up the cluttered harbour as you whooshed over the bridge, seeing all the way to the Heads.

And when you got tired of that, you could watch the driver doing whatever it was that drivers did, or you could chatter excitedly at the conductor. If you were ten, you could, and the conductor would put up with you, even indulge you.

They sacked the last of the bus conductors a year or two ago. They've replaced the conductors with tinny little red machines that whirr and buzz at you when you get it right, and bleat and bleep at you if you get it wrong. But in those days, you could still get on a toast-rack tram and see human conductors working the footboards.

So in spite of the Royal frenzy, there was one small boy, squirming with excitement between his parents, wedged away from the door so he wouldn't fall out, who couldn't care less about the Royal Visit, the Empire, the British Commonwealth or the shiny police on their shiny new Triumph motor-bikes, or patriotism. He was riding his first tram.

I was a wartime baby, and I grew up in the tram-deprived ghetto that was post-war Manly, on the north side of Sydney Harbour. Oh, there were signs of where the trams had been, like the old tracks that were half-tarred-over and which erupted here and there through the road surface, to lurk in wait to snare my mother's high heels.

And there was the old tram road, snaking and winding its way up out of Manly, heading for the top of the hill, to wander along the ridge, only to dive, snaking and winding again, down the other side to The Spit. But no trams any more. None at all, not around Manly.

Of course, I'd been on trams in the city, but you couldn't really call those tram rides, now could you? Not when they kept jerking to a halt and then rushing off again, just like an all stops bus. No chance at all of them shooting through, now was there?

So that day in 1954 was my first real tram ride, and I only managed a few more such treats before the trams were banished from our streets by the Transport Philistines, and I forgot the trams. Well, I almost forgot them.

Then two years ago, I went off down to Melbourne to attend an education conference that was held at the University of Melbourne. There were about two hundred people there, all of them educational researchers of one sort or another.

I presented two research papers about a couple of odd bits of statistical trickery that I'd been working on, and the five or so people who'd been my audience then gave their papers to the same select little group. Nobody else really came near us.

You see, nobody else at the conference understood us number-crunchers, and we didn't really want to know about them, because they were sociologists, so there wasn't much left for us to do after we six had talked about each others' papers. Which is why I happened to go wandering down through Carlton to the city.

And I discovered trams! Real trams running along real streets, trams with flags flying bravely from them, trams with surreal Leunig cartoons painted on them, trams that you could ride on for almost nothing. Just buy a two-hour ticket, and away you go. I did: all over Melbourne.

I still don't know much about where I went in Melbourne, for I'd simply climb aboard a tram, ride it to the end, then ride another one back again, and I hadn't a map, but who cares? I didn't: it was like being re-born, or at least it was like being ten again.

And that's why, a generation after my first tram-ride, just a few months ago, I took my children for their first tram ride, down south of Sydney at Loftus. It was worth it, just to see the glow in their eyes, but I suspect that part of the glow that I saw was reflected, having originated from my eyes.

A week or two earlier, I'd ventured out to Parramatta Park, which is an hour's drive from where I live, to visit Old Government House. I took my fourteen-year-old son along as company and as navigator, and it was he who discovered the trams in Parramatta Park.

To cut a long story short, we struck it lucky: it was the third Sunday in the month, and we ended up spending a couple of hours clambering over everything in the sheds and out of them, and learning a great deal more than we had ever imagined about steam trams and light rail services.

So what with one thing and another, we made it to Old Government House before it closed, but we never did get to Juniper Hall, which had also been on the list for that day, but I didn't mind, and I don't think my son did either.

All of which might not have counted for much, except that I was asked to talk to a group of tramway museum enthusiasts, gathered in Sydney for a conference, and I started to ask myself: why do people get so emotional about some particular forms of transport?

Steam trains seem to command the most loyal followings, and the tall ships will always attract those romantics who fail to recall Nanki-Poo's advice that sailors generally prefer to be somewhere inland with a few home comforts.

Even the smaller sailing-craft have an attraction if they're old enough. "Akarana", the beautiful old gaffer that was a gift from the New Zealand government, is now touring Australia before settling down to its home in the National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

All who see "Akarana" love her for her elegant lines, but steam trains are often quite inelegant, and trams are most utilitarian and hugely inelegant, yet they command a fierce devotion.

There are many people who'll turn aside to inspect some old car or another, but there are few who relate with enthusiasm to horse-drawn vehicles. Old Diesel buses seem to pull in a bigger crowd than most drays or sulkies. Stage-coaches do better, especially if they might have been Cobb and Co coaches, but that's something of a special case.

Then there are the planes. People like planes, and they'll admire them at great length, from a distance, but they don't get all that emotional about them. So whatever the explanation, it seems unlikely that Freud can help us to explain people's choices.

I was in a mood of puzzlement, trying to work out just how it could be explained, and slowly, ever so slowly, I started to theorise. At first, I tried looking at the things that characterise the most popular forms of transport, then I went further.

Stage-coaches appear in many, many movies. Sailing vessels have sails, and trams and trains run on rails, and trams can be powered in many ways. Idly, I reflected on the most attractive combination: a sail-powered train, featured in the movies.

Now I'm a bit of an old movie fan, and I can recall three or four movies where the rails have been ridden by some kind of sail-powered, jury-rigged vehicle. It's certainly too common a theme to be explained by coincidence.

Clearly, I've managed to uncover some deep dark secret of the human psyche, though admittedly only the male psyche. Usually I like to end my talks with a nice neat tag-line, but this time I won't: instead, I'll leave you with the puzzle of explaining, whether in Freudian terms or otherwise, why this particular image should be such a popular one.

And while you're busy on that, I'm off down to Loftus to ride trams for the day. Or maybe I'll go sailing instead: it looks like a good sort of day for it.

This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes. Contact Peter Macinnis specifying the talk(s) you want, and the purpose to which they will be put. For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.