Image for A fragment of Balmain history

The recent discovery of this photograph inspired me to recall a certain event in the history of the inner-city suburb of Balmain. I’m still uncertain whether I should be proud or ashamed to have participated in this example of Sydney seventies binge drinking, but I’m not making excuses, when I say that occasion was culturally richer than it might at first glance, appear.

In the early 70s, author Frank Moorhouse was one of the initiators of the Annual Balmain Pub Crawl. It’s probably superfluous to explain, except to the resolutely abstemious, that the object was to take a drink at every one of Balmain’s then 27 pubs. For the 1972 Balmain Pub Crawl, I was appointed the BPC’s “Official Photographer”.

Intending participants assembled on Saturday morning at 10am at the crossroads of Darling and Rowntree Street, outside The Town Hall Hotel. There, they were required to register the beverage they would continue to drink at each of the pubs throughout the day. Conservatively, I opted for middies of beer. A friend “won” his division from the outset by nominating 7 ounce glasses of port. There were none foolish enough to challenge him. Amongst the flow of Saturday morning shoppers, early arrivals gathered self-consciously on the pavement, but then as the numbers swelled, we realised that this was going to be memorable! It is in that spirit that I record it here.

About 100 hardy souls kicked off, in what at times seemed to be a combination of sporting event and political demonstration; for in part, that is what it was. About a third of the participants were women and fledgling feminists at that. At the time, women were not allowed to drink in so-called public bars and so at the first pub on Darling Street, we invaded “the public” en masse. Long-standing barriers fell at the first hurdle, as the publican, faced with the threat of losing 100 drink orders if he refused service, grudgingly complied. The cash registers rang out in celebration of our defiance of the law.

As we marched on through the narrow Balmain streets The Crawl took on the spirit of a religious festival. Residents came out of their homes and stood at their front fences to watch this happy, noisy procession pass and cheer us on. We should have been carrying huge statues of Bacchus.

Was it the walking between drinks that seemed to keep drunkenness at bay? There was no bad behaviour, few arguments and a spirit of carefree joyousness. Moorhouse kept a random diary in which contenders were allocated or docked points for various notable incidents or memorable quotes. I remember being docked points for “cross cultural vanity”, for helping a faltering indigenous participant keep up the pace.

One commercially opportunistic denizen of Balmain, anticipating we would become ravenously hungry, set up a curry stall outside the White Bay Hotel, where we were due to arrive around 1pm An anarchist shouting, “Free curry!” was the signal for the immediate descent of a horde of inebriated locusts, stripping it in minutes and leaving the would-be venture capitalist gazing forlornly at the remnants of his stall amongst a pile of abandoned, curry stained, paper plates.

We racketed on through pub after pub, up the hill from the White Bay, which by this time seemed to have become an inner-city Everest. Turning right at the summit, back into the Rozelle end of Darling Street, conversation and song had become wilder and more incoherent. By the time we reached Balmain Town Hall, almost a full circuit, fatigue overtook exhilaration and the gritty pavement beckoned to me as a pleasant place to have a lie down.

I could still walk in a relatively straight line and even string a few words together, but the paving seemed as seductive as a the softest down mattress. As I drifted off to sleep, not in the gutter, but on the kerb, I could vaguely hear my friends urgent encouragement. “Come on, Rob. It’s all downhill from here. Only four more pubs to go.” I had taken ale, as Lindsay Tuffin would say, at 23 pubs. I had nothing left. I gave in to the demands of my body.

After a short and uninterrupted restorative nap, I took myself off home, a few streets away. The resilience of youth and the miles of walking seemed to have eliminated the usual need for a hangover. Was I ashamed at my failure to finish?

No.

It was enough to have just been a part of this joyous celebration. In the words of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, “... the important thing in life is not to triumph but to compete … not victory but combat … not to have vanquished but to have fought well … not winning but taking part …”

This photograph is for me, the only surviving pictorial reminder of that memorable day. I like to think that perhaps one day, Moorhouse’s event diary and an album of my photos will be discovered in some Balmain loft for future generations to ponder on the profligate pastimes and Olympian ambitions of the seventies.

Former Sydneysider, photojournalist, *Rob Walls recalls a fragment of Balmain history. At the end of April Rob will be setting off on the road for two months, traversing Australia and continuing his photographic project, This Working Life, a documentation of work in Australia. http://thisworkinglife.wordpress.com

• Elizabeth O’Dwyer in Comments: Frank wrote a delightful book years ago “Days of Wine and Rage” which had a great chapter on the Balmain scene in that period. I was part of the folk scene then. The bikers were actually OK, they used to protect us from the rednecks who would occasionally venture into Balmain to belt up the “hippies”. The workers from the “Empress of Australia” used to drink at the Forth, they were militant unionists but funny a hell. Murray Sime (sadly no longer with us) was a mainstay of the scene, despite being a big corporate director. He held an annual Xmas party for those of us who didn’t have family in Sydney, the “Waifs and Strays” Party. They were great times, and many went on to fame, such as the poet Bob Adamson and Frank Moorehouse. I saw Greer in there once, holding court.