Australia For Visitors > Kings Cross > Louis Nowra speaks at the launch of his book, "Kings Cross: A Biography"

Louis Nowra speaks at the launch of his book, Kings Cross: A Biography

Australian author Louis Nowra speaks on 13 November 2013 at the Macleay Bookshop, Potts Point, during the launch of his book, Kings Cross: A Biography

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It's actually very appropriate that this launch is happening in the Cross, because I remember that when I first lived in the Cross, I used to come to this bookshop and there was Norma Chapman that used to run it... and she used to have these piles and towers of books.

And invariably that the book you wanted was at the bottom of the pile and she'd "You go and get it" and the pile would come down and she'd go: "You go. You just go."

And she didn't want to sell. It was a "who was who" and it was one of the things that you forget about in the Cross (don't worry about the books), that the Cross was at the forefront of modernism in the 20s, 30s and 40s in art, in architecture, in literature.

And what I've tried to do is to reclaim Kings Cross from the sordid headlines that you see every day now and basically say it was a time when people flocked here because this was so different from the soperific suburbia.

And if you were gay or if you weren't married, you could actually come here and you would live with somebody and it was a very free... it was the only place in Australia where you could experience difference.

In the late 1930s and the 1940s you've got to remember, now that we've got asylum seekers, Kings Cross was the only place that accepted refugees. And Jewish people and other people who were escaping from Nazism would actually come here. They were responsible for how the architecture looked and everything.

And what you'e got understand about this area is when you look down the street there are the brilliant examples of art deco.

If you look at history, every well-known Australian author has either lived in the Cross or written about the Cross -- including Patrick White. For everyone who has looked at the Cross and gone, there was something different about the Cross, there was something different about it when you came here.

In the 1920s and 1930s the whole idea of being bohemian took root here in the Cross.

And at the same time the most important thing to happen for women was Kings Cross. In the Cross you had apartments or flats and so women could go and work in the city to which took fifteen minutes to walk. At the same time they were allowed to be themselves. They didn't have anybody in suburbia looking over their shoulders or morally judging them.

And so you had the incredible thing that women invented interior decoration in the 1920s and 1930s. Every apartment now owes this to women who basically said: "No, this is what we've got to do." The interior decorating of places, the time it first ever happened was here in Kings Cross in Australia in the 1930s.

And there were neons. Neon lights came to Kings Cross and people used to come from across Australia just to look at the neon lights and go (if they had the term... this was back in the 1950s) "this is psychedelic, man!".

And the other thing: it was about food. We're talking about Master Chef now. You've got to understand in this book that people would come from across Australia to taste the difference in food and the European quality in food.

Kings Cross stood for everything. It stood for women's freedom. The food and architecture were different. You've got to remember that in the 1930s when the rest of Australia was suffering from the Depression, all these great buildings, the Gowrie Gates, the Byron Halls, were built during the 1930s. As I mention in the endnotes, most of them were illegal. You are supposed to have a gap of about three metres between the buildings. You look at buildings now, there is no gap. They didn't care.

The other thing that I wanted to do with the book... Kings Cross is about people. So I talk about the witch of Kings Cross, lawyers, and beggars, and I also did a chapter on beggars, because they are part and parcel of our environment. And getting to know Rose as she wanders around and Vince's tattoos (??) and Rose is Aboriginal and everything is a realisation that this is part of the structure of Kings Cross, because the crucial thing about Kings Cross is that it is inclusive. It wasn't exclusive.

When you think of all the places that have been destroyed – the old Bourbon and Beefsteak, Barons, and all the places that have been destroyed that have now gone upmarket (which is fine). Kings Cross has always been about transformation. The trouble is that it has become more and more exclusive. The thing about Kings Cross was always that while you had Barons is that whether you were a barrister or whether you just worked in the garbage trucks, when you went to Barons, you were accepted – as long as you didn't judge anybody. And that's been one of the great characteristics of the Cross: as long as you didn't judge anybody, that was fine. It has changed and Kings Cross is always changed.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, it was the epitome of sophistication. You have no idea how important Kings Cross was. In the 1950s like in the rest of Australia, there was a kind of sophorific suburbanisation and the Cross got out of that.

And then what actually happened in the Cross was the comercialisation of sex – thank you, Abe Saffron. And all the time, every time you look at the history of Kings Cross, you realise that Kings Cross is 10-15 years ahead of the rest of Australia. And of course the striptease joints are failing in Kings Cross now because of the Internet and sex is available and times have totally changed.

And people have shifted into the Cross because of its name and it gives it a special type of spice, its name. And it will change again as it is now changing. It's probably become to me a bit more exclusive than it used to be.

But at the same time – there's a chapter in there about beggars – there is a beggar called John who cost Sydney society half a million dollars to look after him over 6 or 7 years... he was always down and out... But when he died, I went to his funeral down at St Canice's... there was just this group of people who thought that he mattered and they cared for him.

And of course you can be pissed off by one of the group of people (don't get me wrong) but at the same time Kings Cross is always around this and all the time working as a safety valve for the rest of our problems.

And finally Kings Cross was always, to use a Freudian term, the Id of Australia. It was unruly. If you went into Kings Cross, my goodness you didn't know what was to happen. And the thing was that sometimes you allowed things to happen to you because you wanted that to happen and you couldn't get it in the suburbs and you couldn't get it in a lot of the cities.

So Kings Cross facilitated the unruliness in you. And that's why it really was important to art and it was important to Australia. I cannot emphasise this strongly enough. Without Kings Cross Australia would have been a backward country. And it was an attractive time and an attractive difference.

And another great thing about Kings Cross – and I'll finish with this – it allows you to perform. If you are a drag queen or you're a bit eccentric, Kings Cross would accept you and constantly would do.

It was only Kings Cross that accepted the refugees, it was only Kings Cross that accepted this mad woman, it was only Kings Cross that accepted that. Because with this small area with its high density of people, the greatest thing about Kings Cross is the acceptance given the density of the population, given the difference, and that's why I think it's a great place and (I have spent about ten years thinking about this book -- with all the things going on), this has been a crucial place in our history.

Thank you.

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