In the middle of lockdown, Russell Bugden posts a video to a local community group on Facebook. The video shows him in his front yard, playing a flugelhorn, similar to a trumpet, to the tune of John Lennon’s Imagine.
Images of Stanmore, a suburb in Sydney’s Inner West, flash over the screen, as the song reaches a crescendo. The video is instrumental, but I can almost hear the words being sung. Imagine all the people… living for today.
What strikes me is not Bugden’s performance, though it is beautiful in its own way, but the everyday nature of him sitting there, the quotidian act of blowing a horn in a front yard, as if that’s not the strangest thing to be doing at a time like this. He is not concerned with how the song can make him money, or hustling, or his social media presence. Playing in his front yard, Bugden is not just playing an old song, he is playing a song to a Sydney, and an Inner West, that no longer exists. One I can’t imagine at all.
In the 1980s, Sydney’s Inner West was the home of the Australian music industry. Internationally renowned bands like ACDC, Midnight Oil and Cold Chisel made their names in the dingey pubs on street corners here. Manning Bar, at the University of Sydney, featured performances by INXS and Concrete Blonde. The crowd was young and working class, and the inner-city was unruly and dangerous.
These patrons still exist, albeit with greying hair. I see them sometimes, like Bugden, playing instruments in their yards, or picking up art at a gallery. They make shrines outside their houses on the pavement to their favourite musicians or sit in cafés talking about all that used to be. They speak to me unprompted, about the design of my t-shirt when waiting for coffee, while they, in their leather jackets, kick up their feet. These are the baby boomers who didn’t sell out, the ones who still care about nuclear proliferation, green energy and vegan meals. But they are a dying breed, and there are fewer and fewer young people, of the same mindset, temperament and crucially, disposable income, to replace them.
In 1977, the median house price for a three bedder in Marrickville was thirty-seven thousand dollars and in Darlinghurst thirty-five thousand dollars, according to Domain. The median house price in Marrickville is now over 1.5 million and Darlinghurst 2.1 million.
The young professionals who live here now are a different breed. I went to university with them. They don’t play musical instruments, let alone flugelhorns, because hobbies are now something you give up after graduation, to be replaced by long working hours and after work drinks. They live in a sporting nation but never get home before sundown. They answer emails at midnight and, as a result, barely ever have sex. A third of them have mental health conditions.
TV presenters call them entitled and comedians laugh at them, while the older generation call them narcissists, failing to recognize that narcissism is a direct result of economic exploitation. A study by UNSW researchers, for example, found that women post more revealing photos of themselves in countries with higher income inequality.
When we talk about the soul of a city, that thing that whispers to us on streets late at night or fresh in the morning, we are indirectly referring to disposable income. Cultural capital is the product of a leisure class, and in Sydney, the leisure class has been pushed gradually West over time, cutting themselves off from financial capital.
Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, talks frequently about revitalizing the cultural precincts of the inner city. But revitalizing them with what, and by whom? Are young professionals saddled with a million-dollar housing debt meant to switch from banking to clarinet?
When I listen to Bugden playing his flugelhorn, I’m left thinking of a city we could live in if the issues of young people were taken seriously, if wages had matched productivity growth since the 1980s, and if we focused more on community building rather than resume building. And yet still, I find it hard to imagine.