Shooting The Breeze In Freo

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As Free As The Wind  From The Ocean

Freo … the name says it all.

Western Australia’s port city of Fremantle was the first area settled by the Swan River colonists in 1829.

Sea breezes mixed with the colourful lives of the workers on the docks drum up such evocative images.

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It always resonated with me, especially when you add to that the dingy wine bars serving a rum or a two-penny port wine. And the early-opening pubs to quench the thirst of those on shift work.

I needed to see that.

Having lived in the inner suburbs of South Melbourne and Port Melbourne I knew the sense of family that existed in such communities. A lot like mining towns where the community had to look after itself.

Today, I am heading there to catch up with a mate who we worked with in London during the 1970s.

Now, just after crossing the road bridge from Cottesloe, there is a huge mural of an octopus on an old stone building. The shape of things to come.

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It looks like Fremantle has changed so much since my first visit. That was before the Americas Cup was sailed there in 1987.

The port city of Perth is rich in history and architecture and you can soak it up on a walk around the streets.

Preparations for the defence of the Americas Cup created huge changes and today visitors far outnumber the dock workers.

Pubs and cafes, arts and retro shops, Freo today has a real vibe about it. The earthiness of its waterfront worker background, the rich cultural mix of visitors from around the world.

As well as its maritime history, Freo is known for its Victorian architecture and remnants from the early days as a British penal colony.

I’ve been told that Fremantle Prison, which housed convicts from the 1850s to 1991, is well worth a visit – both for its tours and the art on the cell walls.

The closest I got to the gaol was being pulled up by the police for doing a U-turn at the traffic lights but when he saw my Northern Territory licence realised U-turns were probably not a big thing in Darwin.

I was advised to pick up a copy of Western Australia road rules at the nearest police station.

The gaol now features re-created cell blocks, and tours by day as well as at night.

The art work on the cell walls, doors and exercise yard walls … said to be great examples of expressions of tenderness and hope, and just a way to alleviate boredom.

This time I park the car near the hospital and start walking to catch up with Peter.But I’m stopped in my tracks in Wray Avenue by an an amazing shop … hidden among all the hand-written signs is one above the door: Frank’s Gourmet Meats. Macelleria Italiana.

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Formerly the O.C. Torre & Son butcher shop for 30 years, Frank Corbone has been there for another two decades.

The shop helped shaped the multi-cultural flavours of Fremantle. The handwritten signs promising all sorts of delights.

The trademark red bull signboard at the front declares Italian pork ribs with olives and basil, Aussie lamb chops in red wine, Moroccan spicy lamb sausages, American hickory beef ribs, German kranskys, Portuguese chicken leg thighs.

It became a landmark in the days of Torre & Son and continues so today with Frank, in larger premises closer to South Terrace.

People would drop in to have a yarn, speaking all sorts of languages.

It’s the same with Frank, who came to Fremantle from Melbourne.

Step inside and you are knocked out by the presentation of the produce on display.

And off to one side a Fremantle Dockers jersey clashes with a Carlton Blues guernsey, showing how deep the Aussie Rules football passion runs in this town.

I had just put my head inside the door to see the display of goods – and didn’t leave until 10 minutes later.

Apparently its like that most times. People come down for a chat and leave half an hour later, especially when the Dockers beat the Blues.

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Stepping out into the sunlight and brilliant blue skies, I keep walking to South Terrace, where I am to meet Peter.

In London, we worked with a charter flight company and the idea of jetting off to France, Spain, Greece or North Africa for a holiday was big business.

It was boom times. As the Monty Python sketch highlighted the fact people were flying to places such as Majorca to stay at hotels that were still half completed and go to a typical restaurant with local colour and atmosphere and you sit next to a party from Rhyl who keep singing ‘Torremolinos, torremolinos’ and complaining about the food.

The Boeing 747 jumbo jets were just coming into service for international flights and the British were excited at the thought of spending some time in the sunny Mediterranean instead of the traditional holiday camps at Blackpool or Southend-on Sea.

We had picked up a job helping put the company’s accounts and records on to computer from their manual records.

We were, for all intents and purposes, at the start of the computing era. The cutting edge.

And it included free computer lessons at the Science Museum of a Sunday.

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The buildings here in Fremantle are so interesting. So many old stone cottages and warehouses that date back to its early days.

The Fremantle Markets, established in 1897, are filled with exotic aromas, fresh produce, fashion, live music, performance art, crafts and indigenous art.

Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday, they are a great spot to buy fruit and veg there … and excellent coffee.

The Luna Theatre is an alternative movie theatre.

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Fremantle still has a working fishing harbour with boats surrounded by world-class restaurants, as well as bars, entertainment and accommodation.

Fishermans Harbour is the spot for great fish and chips … but mind the seagulls as they are always looking for something to eat.

And anyone with a love of Australian pub rock can seek out the Bon Scott Statue in the harbour – Greg James’s depiction of the original AC/DC lead singer (1946–80), strutting on a Marshall amplifier.

Further indication of Freo style is it was one of the first places in Australia to adopt the idea of free outdoor table tennis in the streets.

Then there was the burning pianos in the harbour, as part of the Fremantle Festival I think it was.

I was already fascinated by the ruined pianos that were scattered across the Western Australian landscape, in the wheatfields at York.

And the burning piano was creative, yes, dramatic, yes. Showing that art can be fleeting, for an instant.

I have arranged to meet Peter at Gino’s, an old-school restaurant right on South Terrace and Freo’s most famous cafe.

The streets are crowded with locals and visitors. So much colour, interest. And there’s the classic old grandstand of the Fremantle Oval.

The “Freo” Dockers  used to train there but now they are 10km further south.

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Past the Ship and Anchor Hotel – that and the Little Creatures Brewery are great spots for a drink – and then across the street.

There he is sitting at a table, a thin-brimmed straw hat on … the type the young-uns wear these days but the same shape as those worn by the detectives and racecourse stewards in the past.

He is sitting in the sun, just as if he was on the Lido in Italy.

That’s the thing about good friendships, you can slip right back into them just as if it was yesterday.

I was lucky to catch him, he was due to return to Italy in two weeks to see his partner’s family and spend the best part of a year living there again.

He suggests we cross the street to Bella Roma Pizza, have something to eat.

One with The Works and some cold Coopers pale ales.

Unbelievable … arguably one of the best pizzas we have tasted. Great price too.

But it’s best to check the size of the pizzas before ordering. A ‘large’ served three people for lunch.

Peter tells me Rimini, south of Bologna, is the heart of the Adriatic riviera.

Yet he doesn’t swim there, not after being raised on some of the best beaches in the world.

We reminisce about his swimming … in the baths in London. He was a good distance swimmer from what I remember. And how we would go to the indoor pool at Swiss Cottage, even in winter.

Peter had worked as an accountant at Cadbury Schweppes down in Somerset before we met up in London.

His mate Rex already had clerical work as a skill and Peter’s father Jack had been an accountant.

Together with Rex they had worked their way across Canada, picking tobacco among other things. And they had photos of themselves in shorts and thongs while in the snow.

Coming from Western Australia, it was the first time he and Rex had seen it.

I was impressed by their attitude.

Back in Perth he went from cartographer to surveyor, and now lives near the river at Fremantle.

How would I describe him … likeable, trustworthy. Observant.

He had a quick mind and a dry sense of humour. Quick to sum things up.

He considered me to be interested in things.

After lunch I am caught in the moment. Two mates shooting the breeze in Freo.

I look around at others in the restaurant and walking past in the street.

The easy-going nature of Fremantle. Old friendships, new friendships … friendships growing stronger over time.

They might change yet still remain the same. Maybe Fremantle is like that too.

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2 comments

  • You are right … an easy-going community probably due to its early maritime background from the times of sailing ships and fishing fleets. It is blessed with breezes from the ocean and a beautiful backdrop of the wide reaches of the Swan River. Then there is the colour of the multi-cultural community … a city in its own right within the greater city of Perth and handy to such glorious beaches as Cottesloe, Swanbourne and Scarborough …

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