The Weekend Australian Magazine by Ross Bilton

Heart of the Nation

19-20 May 2018
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” wrote the novelist LP Hartley. Looking at this photo from the Rennie Ellis Archive, you might be inclined to agree. From the uniform of shorts and thongs to the shaggy hair, the ciggies and the bored dog, it’s a snapshot of Australian pub culture that’s at once familiar and foreign, made remote by the passage of time.

The location is certain – it’s the Airlie Beach Hotel – but those pictured can’t agree on a date. “1978 or 1979,” says Tarz Norton, left of centre, sipping a rum and Coke as he coolly weathers the taunts of a bare-chested provocateur. “De nitely 1982,” says Syd Anderson, standing at the bar, bottle in hand. Why de nitely? “Because that fella I’m talking to, Ian McPherson, was a blow-in from Canada who didn’t stay long – and he took my girlfriend back to Vancouver with him when he left in late ’82.” Ouch.

One can imagine Ellis – the late, great social documentary photographer – discreetly raising his camera from a corner table to snap the brewing blue. “That bare-chested bloke, can’t remember his name, he was always annoying me,” says Norton, who worked as a labourer. “But I’d been in trouble at the pub before, and one more incident and I’d be barred. So I was just biding me time...” That’s Norton’s dog, Jack, on the oor. “He was a bull terrier/whippet/dingo cross, and part of the furniture in the bar. A great dog,” he recalls fondly. Anderson sees that differently, too. “Crazy little dog. Mental,” he says.

So, what are they up to now? Anderson, 66, still lives in Airlie (“I came up here from Brisbane on a shing trip 40 years ago and never went back,” he laughs) and is spending his retirement contentedly tinkering with boats. And Norton is living in northern NSW, where he works in road maintenance; he’s 63 now, with bung knees and bung shoulders, a cancer survivor. Is he happy though? “Shit yeah mate,” he growls down the phone, pub noises in the background. “I’ve got a beautiful daughter, two grandkids, good mates. Life is great.”