April 2011

The Nation Reviewed

The bird man and Mrs Gluck

By Delia Falconer
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
A Kings Cross identity

The parks of my Sydney childhood are disappearing: their secret shades, old plantings and narrow paths almost all gone now, as the City of Sydney council follows through its master plans to “renew” them with one-size-fits-all open spaces. Now it is the turn of my little local park, raffish Fitzroy Gardens, near the El Alamein Fountain, in Kings Cross. And so I find myself in the City of Sydney Archives, behind the Town Hall, looking for documents that might help the local protest. Among the files is the folder “Application by O Lloyd, for use to exhibit ‘Performing Birds’”.

Older Sydneysiders may remember Owen Rutherford Lloyd. He entertained tourists by the fountain with a homemade phonofiddle – a single-stringed violin with a saxophone-like funnel. A photograph from the Sydney Gazette shows a portly man in a black suit, with thick glasses and moustache, clutching between his knees what looks like an erhu that has mated with a Victrola. There are budgerigars on the ascending levels of a cake-rack affair on the horn’s mouth, and more along the bow. A cockatiel perches on Lloyd’s head. Phonofiddles, as recorded on the web, emit a horripilating whine, somewhere between a theremin and musical saw.

The first correspondence is dated 3 July 1965. Lloyd asks for permission to continue to stage his well-known act “of an evening when the weather permits”. “People come looking for this attraction,” he writes, “as it is quite unique, having no counterpart in any part of the world.” In addition, “it provides the sort of local colour that overseas travellers are led to expect at our famous Kings Cross.” On 2 September 1965, the town clerk’s minutes note, “This type of entertainment is not favoured in Fitzroy Gardens and approval is not recommended.”

Yet on 13 May 1966, the town clerk reports investigating the “activities in and in the vicinity of Fitzroy Gardens, Kings Cross, of Mr O Lloyd, a novelty musician, popularly known as the ‘Bird Man’”. He confirms officers’ reports that, contrary to his licence, passers-by have been tossing coins into a hat, which was “later collected by Mr Lloyd”. Noting that Lloyd’s permission expires in 1966, the clerk asks for the alderman’s advice.

Meanwhile, nearby residents are unhappy about Lloyd’s “public renditions”. But defining their sheer awfulness taxes language. To the 27 signatories at the Franconia they are “repetitive dirges”. Mr Luscombe, from Baroda Hall, regretfully complains about the “irritating and very penetrating noise created by an elderly man who plays a peculiar instrument”. The “monotonous sound waves” make it “impracticable to work of an evening, for any mental activity, whether it be reading (fiction or scientific), sewing, correspondence, or the preparation of technical reports”. An anonymous correspondent writes of the “primitive inartistic noise”. And adds, poignantly, “We expect mail from our sons in Vietnam and we want to listen to the news, but this nuisance noise does not help at all.”

Mrs Gluck, having bought a flat in the Gordon for her retirement, cannot rest. “Not only is the ‘Bird Man’ making a mornful [sic] noise just opposite my windows, but now an ice-cream vendor van stops here for about 2–3 hours from 7 pm with the refrigerator motor going on all the time, [I’m] unable to hear even the voice over the telephone.” Unfortunately, when the matter is subsequently investigated at 9.40 on a Friday night, Lloyd’s music cannot be heard on her side of the street, and no ice-cream truck is parked outside the building. “During the inspection,” the deputy town clerk adds, “Mrs Gluck was not available for interview although the inspector knocked on her flat door several times.”

But Lloyd has his supporters, such as Hugh Eliot, of the Betcherrygah Kungun Budgerigar Service and Information Centre, Manly, who writes: “I hope Mr Lloyd will continue to be allowed to display his birds in the same way he has been doing for so long.” “This is so!” an anonymous council supporter has pencilled in the margin.

In December 1967, Mrs Gluck writes again. Lloyd’s noise is hard to hear from the street because it rises directly into her second-floor unit. “After several months of hearing much the same tunes played over and over again by not an expert performer,” she writes, “I am really getting browned off because of the mournful sound [which] really does disstress [sic] anybody who has to listen to it constantly.”

Yet on 15 January 1968, the deputy town clerk reports: “Since lead pellets were fired at Mr Lloyd some little time ago he has moved the scene of his operations further into the park.” Mrs Gluck – has she purchased a small rifle? – is reported to be “no longer worried by [Lloyd’s] activities”; she “thanked Council’s officers for their attention in the matter”.

But Lloyd is not defeated. A complaint from the Franconia in April 1972 reveals that he has relocated beneath the real estate agent’s verandah in Llankelly Place. His “dreadful dirge,” writes Miss J Britton, is “almost unendurable even with our windows closed and curtains drawn” and “penetrates even with the TV on”. A handwritten note at the bottom of subsequent council minutes comments tersely, “MR LLOYD does not have Council’s permission to perform.”

As I look at Council’s plans to “tame” the “opposing impulses” of our park, to give it an “urban order and singular identity”, I think about the unstoppable Mr Lloyd. Surely a park is not just a blank space but an organic place of accumulated life: of eccentric local habit and competing interests, not all of them lovely. Perhaps it has a more complex history than can be captured by “interpretative” panels that tell us how to feel and remember; more robust than the designers’ proposed Gaudi-inspired winged butterfly bench conjuring a more genteel idea of the inner city, by recalling the insect collections of colonial resident Alexander Macleay.

On 7 July 1972 the town clerk noted: “It is reported that during recent inspections of Fitzroy Gardens not any evidence has been seen of the Bird Man being in the vicinity, and it would appear that his activities in that regard have ceased.”

Lloyd was reported working in the park into the 1980s.

Delia Falconer
Delia Falconer is a novelist, journalist and non-fiction writer. She is the editor of The Best Australian Stories 2008 and 2009. Her books include The Service of Clouds, The Penguin Book of the Road and Sydney.

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