For me, Sydney in the years 1971 to 1976 was idyllic. I had left behind the cold damp climate of Ireland to find myself facing the long freezing winters of Toronto. After five years of purgatory, I decided that enough was enough and the lure of the South Pacific won me over. I escaped and I have never regretted that move.
For one sight of the piercing blue sky, the profusion of bougainville, the immense drowned-valley harbour, with its ferrys scuttling from point to point, and the string of beaches and headlands up and down the coast was enough; I fell head and heels in love with the country.
And I was living in Kirribilli the night of October 20, 1973, when the Opera House was officially opened, and the sky exploded with a magnificent display of pyrotechnics. Life felt really felt good.
For my first two years in Sydney, I was employed as a computer programmer with Nestlé, at their offices on Foveaux Street, close to Central Station. They were good employers and I was relieved to have a steady income; when I received my first salary, my account was empty. And it was there that I met Philip Cockell, with whom I am still in contact.
Soon after I joined Nestlé, I was recruited into the football team, that participated in a local works league. Our home ground was a pitch beside the Nestlé factory, and when we were downwind, the smell of chocolate was quite overpowering. We got quite accustomed to that smell, but visiting teams usually visibly suffered: having a home game was definitely an advantage.
But I was ambitious in those days – I guess that I still am – and a plodding existence in Nestlé was not for me. In 1973, I was offered a similar position in a local computer services company – IDAPS Computer Sciences, and I made the move. And after a few months I was promoted to manage their small group of programmers.
It was in the early days of service bureaus and few companies could afford their own computers. Our clients would deliver their data on paper at the end of the business day and our key-punch operators would convert it to card or paper tape. The data would then be loaded on our mainframes, processed, print reports produced and delivered to the clients, in time for the start of the next business day.
During normal hours the programmers worked on new developments or enhancements to existing systems, and at night we provided on-call support, in case of production failure. As I lived close to the office I handled most of the on-call support, and there were few weeks when I did not get called in at least once to sort out a program bug or operator error. It was after one such late night that I stumbled upon The Basement jazz club.
The Basement was located in the basement (where else?) of a nondescript building close to Circular Quay, not far from my office. In those days meals were served from early evening and live jazz from nine o’clock to the wee hours of the morning. The food was good and the house wine inexpensive and I soon found myself going there regularly, usually alone during a weeknight, sometimes with friends at weekends.
The Basement opened in 1973 with a relatively unknown modern jazz group called Galapagos Duck. And later on, most nights they would be joined by other jazz musicians and a jam session would get going. I used to love to sit there at a secluded table, sipping on a bottle of wine and letting my mind wander.
Galapagos Duck performed continuously at The Basement for 16 years and to this day still appear there from time to time. They made their first album – Ebony Quill – in 1974, and I still have a copy.
Sometimes when on my own and in a nostalgic mood, I turn the lights down and the volume up, and with my glass of wine at hand, ‘Ebony Quill’ takes me back in time to a late night in Sydney.
Listen with me to one of the tracks…