Stephen Orr on growing up in suburban Adelaide








The #tenyearchallenge has been dominating social media for the past few weeks, but today author Stephen Orr looks even further back in this 2006 article about his childhood in the suburbs of 1970s Adelaide.

Keep an eye out for Stephen’s next novel, This Excellent Machine, which will be released in April 2019.


Smith Street

I want to tell you about the street I grew up in. We’ll call it Smith Street, although some of you will work out where it really is.

Smith Street was asbestos homes on stumps. One family (I’ll call them the Hanrahans) had a brick home, and they were the envy of the neighbourhood. Mr Hanrahan was a policeman and often brought his work home (unless that was someone else’s paddy wagon parked in his driveway). That was the most exciting thing in Smith Street. Everyone else’s parents worked at Woolies or drove taxi trucks. The milkie left two bottles, scummy with cream, and the baker always pulled up in front of our house (something to do with finger buns).

Mrs Jolley lived next door with a dozen cats and her middle-aged son, a doctor who’d retired early and gone on to grow a Catweazle beard, spending his days writing poetry and slashing waist-high grass with a scythe. Mrs Jolley would often babysit me and my sister after school. With her yellow smoker’s fingers and teeth and a Scottish accent she was a marvel, serenading us with stories of the old country as she drank one cup of tea after another.

            The gardens of Smith Street were filled with diosmas and rampant mint, and overgrown with soursobs in winter. We had dirt footpaths, lined with cracks, carpeted with three-corner jacks. The local Ford dealership tested their cars up and down our street and the Kentucky Fried Chicken on North East Road filled our yards with the aroma of the Colonel’s luscious thighs. The smell came into our bedrooms and laundry, and even snuffed out the stench of laurel sulphate on the freshly waxed floors.

Further along Smith Street there was a basketball stadium. It had a barren car park of blue metal, gum trees and rubbish blown over from the main road. Opposite the stadium there was an old hall, hemmed in by wild oats and heliotrope. It was called Polish Hall, and as a little person I always thought this meant the floors would be extra shiny. Eventually I worked it out, looking for small people in peasant clothing whenever we went past. But it was always empty. It seemed hard to believe there were or ever had been any Poles (or Russians, or anything exotic) in Hillcrest. Sometimes the hall was used for dances on Saturday night – mostly DJs, but sometimes a band. I used to sit at my window and listen, watching the moon cast tree shadows across our freshly mowed Santa Ana.

Back in the seventies, Smith Street kids formed gangs and rode around on dragsters. But then we grew up and moved out, and our parents left, leaving those old homes to go to seed – weeds, always weeds (the only plants that flourished in that soil), homes cracking down the middle because they hadn’t been restumped, and brick cladding broken and falling off (and anyway, everyone knew it was only brick cladding – only the Hanrahans had the real thing).

            Smith Street finished at 78 (as did most of its inhabitants). Then there were just empty paddocks – Elysium fields full of Paterson’s Curse – where kids fought on the ‘mound’ after school. That always had a good turnout. And further still, Housing Trust ‘half-houses’, and our primary school, distributing free milk to every student, five cent cups of soup for winter lunch and the promise that we’d all grow up to drive Kingswoods.

And that was, or is, Smith Street. The only street to fill the only childhood I’ll ever have, for better or worse, weedier or landscaped, DJ or live. Beyond number 78 there’s nothing except the knowledge that the whole lot will soon be gone, the wreckers already beying (courtesy of a greedy government) for the hundred house plots where I learned to read and write. Homes knocked down and rebuilt – the smell of Sunday roasts and rosemary hedges, the sight of husbands coming home tanked at eleven pm, the stories of people who died of cancer or heart attacks, who were there one day and gone the next – all of this lost, our songline subsumed for units and Tuscan townhouses (their yards still heavy with eleven herbs and spices).

All gone – which isn’t as bad as it sounds. That’s the story of our city, and suburbs, and life. I think we’re all extras in a crowd scene from some film that never got great reviews. And one day, years later, we see the re-run on Gem. We watch it and say, ‘There I am, there!’ We see our face for a second or two. Then we go back and watch it again, thinking, I thought I had a bigger part than that.


Stephen Orr was born in Adelaide in 1967 and grew up in Hillcrest. He studied teaching and spent his early career in a range of country and metropolitan schools. One of his early plays, Attempts to Draw Jesus, became his first Australian/Vogel shortlisted novel, published in 2002. Since then he has published seven novels, a volume of short tories (Datsunland) and two books of non-fiction (The Cruel City and The Fierce Country). He has won or been nominated for awards such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Miles Franklin Award and the International Dublin Literary Award.

Stephen Orr is married and lives in Adelaide.