The Battle of Barncleuth Square by Joseph Ridgwell

(originally published in Savage Manners, reprinted with permission)

Kings Cross Sydney, last days of the twentieth century. I was standing outside the Pink Pussycat, swigging a longneck of VB from a brown paper bag, and observing the scene.  Then Queensland Suzie walked past, ‘Yo Suze what’s up?’

To say Suzie was an ugly woman would be a little cruel, but it has to be said she was the ugliest women I’d ever seen. The first time I met her I was struggling to pick up this aristocratic English girl from the pavement. The Marchioness of Jute, which is who she was, had consumed a little too much 2-4-1 vino and collapsed on the main drag puking claret everywhere. She wasn’t a big girl, but drunk she was a dead weight, and I just couldn’t get her up.

Queensland Suzie was sitting outside Playbirds International, watching my feebleness with some amusement,‘You’re as weak as shit, mate,’ she said after my fourth failed attempt. I remember looking up and seeing this very dark and very ugly aboriginal woman,‘Couldn’t give us a hand could ya?’‘Fuck that shit, a?’‘Nice one.’

And that was that, she didn’t give me a hand, and I was forced to leave the Marchioness lying in the gutter. Anyway, for what its worth, that was how I first met Queensland Suzie, ‘G’day Pom, ave ya seens what the famous bums ave done?’

The Famous Bums were exactly that, the two most famous bums in Kings Cross. The mystery was that nobody knew their names,‘Na, what?’ Queensland Suzie gave me a cheeky wink, ‘Lend us five bucks, and I’ll tells ya.’

This was typical of the Suzie, always on the scrounge, but I kinda liked her for it, ‘Fuck Suze, your aving a giraffe.’ Suzie looked confused, ‘A?’I handed over a five, ‘Forget it, just give me the low down.’‘Beauty pom, well, they’ve only gone and built their best room yet a? ‘Whereabouts?’‘Barnclueth Square, it’s a sight for sore eyes.’

What marked the Famous Bums out from other street drunks, hoboes, and vagrants, was their remarkable talent for exterior design. Each night these resourceful fellas walked the streets appropriating junk furniture, bedding materials, and any other household items they could get their hands on. Then they would design an open-air front room in one of their favoured locations and get down to the serious matter of hardcore drinking.

‘Think I’ll check it out Suze.’ ‘Ganna be a big party there tonights.’

When I got to Barnclueth square my eyes nearly popped out of my head. The Famous Bums had really gone to town.  The finest incarnation of their endless series of open-air rooms consisted of two settees, one armchair, a double mattress, a painting hanging lopsidedly from a branch of a tree, a working radio that was on, but not tuned into a station, a television (not working), a large blue china vase with some dead flowers in, a wardrobe, coffee table, a fridge, and even a hat stand, on which hung a couple of hats.

The amazing room had attracted an assortment of bums who regularly inhabited the Cross. The Radioman was there, the Air-Guitar Man, Junkie Pete, Barberella the Brazilian tranny, The Instamatic Camera Lady, a few other assorted nobodies, and miscellaneous mangy pets. They were all drinking port wine and living it up.

I said hi and strolled around the room. I tried to tune the radio without success. The Famous Bums were in their element and were really proud of their achievement. They kept talking about settling down and never moving again.  I began to worry. Their open-air rooms only lasted a few days before the authorities moved in for dispersal and I could see a confrontation on the horizon.

I began visiting Barnclueth Square every day after work. Along with the ordinary bums came buskers, teeny-bopper junkies, and even tourists. Soon everyone got to hear about the magnificent room and on some days a little crowd gathered, watching events as they unfolded. As part of a poetic regime I’d take out my little notebook and jot down sketches of the evening song scenes. It was a real little spontaneous community there in Barnclueth Square, almost a commune. People took it in turns to do beer runs, and food runs, and smoko runs, and generally looked out for each other.

On the whole bums are interesting characters and I enjoyed listening to their tales of woe, especially Queensland Suzie, who was one of the stolen generation, but I’ll tell that story someplace else.

Well, for a few days, it was one happy party at Number one Barncleuth Square. I loved it and looked forward to clocking off from my shift at the hospital and wandering over there with a longneck of Toohey’s or a cask of gut rot vino. But as everyone knows that bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, always.

Finally they showed, like a vision of doom, the authorities. With perfect timing they appeared on the week’s anniversary of the Famous Bums great room. A couple of dead-looking council employees, grey-haired, grey suits, total monochrome. These dudes had no faces, no eyes, no soul, they were just empty conformist shells, easily subjugated individuals, happily enslaved from birth to death.

And they had papers, official documents, yet they didn’t want any trouble.  They gave the Famous Bums a non- choice, vacate the area and let the magnificent room be dismantled, or face prosecution and imprisonment. Despite their grey demeanours of nothingness, these freaks were clinical.

Fortified by the wine and the support of all the assorted Kings Cross hoboes, the two Famous Bums made a famous last stand. They pushed and barged the bureaucrats, told them in no uncertain terms to get the fuck out of their room, and stuck their thumbs to their noses and wiggled their fingers. We all laughed, we all cried with laughter, except the council automatons. They remained stony-faced, warning that uncooperative attitudes were only delaying the inevitable, and vowed to return.

That night a great party went down in Barncleuth Square. Everyone was there. I jotted down the whole shebang in my notebook and then got roaring drunk myself. There were a couple of buskers from the Blue Mountains, fantastic harmonica players, who got everyone in the mood. Around midnight me and Queensland Suzie did a mad drunken jig, while the harmonicas blasted and a big silver moon bathed the square in ghostly shadows.

The next day the authorities arrived early, at the crack of dawn, and in numbers. I awoke on an outdoor settee, with Queensland Suzie by my side. All the other bums were asleep.  The authorities began speaking to no one in particular, ‘With the power invested in us………etc, etc, or something like that.’ I found a bottle of port wine from the previous night’s drinking and took a hit. The authorities were still waffling. Then the two Famous Bums roused and vented their fury. They were going nowhere and would not be moved.

The authorities didn’t even blink. They just calmly radioed for assistance, and coolly instructed the rubbish collectors to move in. As events stepped up a gear I slipped quietly off into the background. At this time I was an illegal immigrant, and one false move and I’d be languishing in Villawood detention centre, with a one-way ticket back to blighty.

When the contractors moved in everything went crazy. The Famous Bums fought tooth and nail to keep their home, and with bottles flying and tempers fraying the council workers backed off. Next up the police arrived with sirens blasting, but by now a sizable crowd had gathered all in vociferous support of the Famous Bums. I watched fascinated from the sidelines, and jotted down descriptions of the persecution in my notepad. I felt a bit guilty about not joining in, but I needed deportation to the UK like the proverbial hole in the head.

The stand-off went on late into the night, until around midnight riot police appeared on the scene. By this time all the bums were drunk and no match for well drilled and well organised opponents. They soon went flying, or were dragged away screaming and hollering. It took six coppers to drag Queensland Suzie away, and ten each for the two Famous Bums. And, then, aside from the odd disembodied shriek and desolate cry, the Battle of Barnclueth Square was over. 

The next morning I took a walk to the square, but it was like none of the events had ever taken place. The authorities had been efficient in the clean-up, and only a vague memory of the great outdoor room remained. Nobody knew where the Famous Bums went after that or why, but several weeks later one of them made a dramatic re-appearance. A final insane protest. And there he was one sad and lonely Kings Cross afternoon, stark naked, and covered from head to toe in fluorescent red paint. He stood in Barnclueth Square for hours, as if to say LOOK AT ME, LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE!

I was standing outside Porky’s Adult Bookstore with Queensland Suzie,‘Look, there’s one of the Famous Bums,’ I said.‘Jeez, will you take a look at the fella, red from top to bottom,’ gasped Queensland Suzie.And then he was gone, disappearing like a red apparition into the forgotten Australian void.

I’m told the Cross is a sterile and somewhat soulless place these days, with spotless sidewalks and corporate coffee shops dominating the scene. But even though the bums are long gone and I am long gone I’m certain of one thing. If you stand on the corner of Kellett Street and look very carefully in the direction of Barncleuth Square, you may, if lucky see a group of spectral men and women drinking from ghostly bottles, and singing songs of freedom into the long lost night.

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