When Bryan Brown was growing up in Panania in southwest Sydney in the 1950s and early 1960s, there were three hubs of social life outside school: the picture theatre; the church; the municipal baths. The baths at nearby Bankstown had one of Sydneyâ€™s first Olympic-size chlorine pools when they opened in 1933. Twenty-five years later, when young Bryan was living in the area, the pool was still going strong, and from the ages of 11 to 15 that was where he wanted to be.
Back in the 1950s and early 60s lots of young families moved to the Bankstown area for the war service and housing commission homes around Panania, Revesby and East Hills. My mother, Molly, my younger sister, Kristine, and I lived in a housing commission home in Panania and, like all the other residents, we went to the pool at Bankstown as it was the only one in the area. It was a place of enormous life and where you wanted to be at the weekend. It was hot out there in summer and you couldnâ€™t wait to dive into the pool.
I first went there when I was about 11, with my mother and my sister, to have swimming lessons. We lived near the Georges river and I suppose if you lived near a river youâ€™d eventually learn to swim. But mum wanted us to learn properly so she booked us in for swimming lessons at the baths. Learning to swim was an incredibly important part of being an Australian kid and Bankstown baths was a fantastic place to learn that essential life skill. After our series of lessons my sister and I got certificates saying we could swim 25 yards, and that was the beginning of swimming for us.
Right from the start I loved swimming. I loved being in the water, mucking around and diving down deep, and I loved the feel of the water over my body. And once I could swim, I could get the bus to the baths instead of going with mum. Learning to swim was the start of becoming more independent and moving from being a little boy to being a big boy. The bus trip from Panania to Bankstown was seven miles and most weekends in summer I took that ride down the bottom of the hill with blokes who lived in my street.
One of the greatest things about the Bankstown baths was the smell of chlorine. I used to walk into those baths and go down into the boysâ€™ dressing rooms and youâ€™d walk through water, a little sort of pond that cleaned your feet, before you could go out into the swimming pool. As you started to ascend the steps to go to the pool there was an overwhelming smell of chlorine and you knew you were at the Bankstown baths. Itâ€™s nothing like the smell of chlorine now.
The pool was pretty standard. There was a smaller childrenâ€™s pool and a 55-yard pool which had a high diving board and a small one. Under the diving tower it was 10 feet deep. My mates and I tended to hang around the middle of that pool. We did a lot of running and jumping and bombing each other. We splashed around and chased each other and wrestled in the water. It was all pretty unstructured.
Sometimes youâ€™d get bumped by a bigger kid and he might try to hold your head under water for a while. In that moment it didnâ€™t feel too bloody good because for a second or two you thought youâ€™re going to drown. And then he lets you up and you splutter and gasp for breath. But you also come up having understood a bit more about what life was all about. I suppose these days youâ€™d call that boy a bully, and some of the other bigger boys who bumped you around a bit. But I just called them smartarses. You learned not to get caught around that sort of bloke again and you learned how to handle things. If someone jumped in or bombed and hit you on the shoulder â€“ well you learned to get out of their road. It was all just part of growing up.
The other great thing about that period was Bankstown baths had John and Ilsa Konrads training there with Don Talbot as their coach. And you sat there in awe of these great swimmers, two young immigrant kids from Latvia who had won Olympic medals. That was pretty exciting. Weâ€™d sit on the side of the pool watching them. We knew exactly who they were. They were world record holders and Olympic champions and they were at our pool. They were training in one lane while we all jumped in and out and splashed each other in the next lane. And Talbot was a big presence there as well. You didnâ€™t get any bigger than Don Talbot.
There was an area at the back of Bankstown baths where there was a lot of bush and thatâ€™s where the bodgies and widgies used to go. Weâ€™d be running around in our Speedos but down the back were these blokes and girls in their jeans and leather jackets. Theyâ€™d be kissing and cuddling and youâ€™d try to have a little sneak and look around the bushes, but you werenâ€™t game to go in too far. One of those blokes would probably hammer you. It was a pretty exotic, colourful old place the Bankstown baths.
It was a place of enormous life. A fantastic place for all the young people between the ages of eight and 30 â€“ and if you were 30 you probably looked really old to us. Those baths initiated me not just to swimming but a whole other understanding of life â€“ who were the right people to hang around with and who were not. It was a place where you worked things out yourself and learned about friendship and loyalty.
Mostly I think of the Bankstown baths as an exciting place. I went every Sunday and looked forward to it. I couldnâ€™t wait. After being around for more than 50 years, in 1984 the baths were closed. I didnâ€™t really hear about that until one night in 2013 when I was invited to a poetry slam at the Bankstown Arts Centre. On that same night they were celebrating the 80th birthday of the pool and I was knocked out when I realised that the Bankstown baths were now an arts centre. I was happy because it was still a hub, but in a much bigger way because it was a hub for young people, middle-aged and older people as well. If the baths had been filled in and there were flats on them it wouldnâ€™t have made me happy. But as an arts centre, the place was still fulfilling a community function â€“ very different from when I was growing up, but just as important.
I sat there in that audience of Lebanese, Egyptian, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian and Anglo Australians and I remembered how important this building was to me 50 years before. And later when I became a patron of the Bankstown Arts Centre I got to meet my hero John Konrads again. He was also a patron and when I met him I was able to say: â€œMate, I used to sit on the edge of the baths here and I used to idolise you.â€ It was great to meet John and for both of us to be at the place where the Bankstown baths used to be and to see that itâ€™s still playing a cultural role in the local community and, just like the baths were, itâ€™s a vibrant place full of life.
This is an edited extract from The Memory Pool â€“ Australian stories of summer, sun and swimming, by Therese Spruhan (NewSouth Books, $29.99)