James O’Brien : The Sound Guy

James O'Brien : The Sound Guy
James O’Brien : The Sound Guy

With the exception of four years in Brisbane, I spent the first thirty years of my life in the country: Lismore, Bourke, Renmark and Wagga. When my career brought me to Sydney, I was really excited.

As I knew I didn’t want to live too far from work, I drew a “walking circle” (old style protractor) around Ultimo, that reached out to Glebe and Pyrmont, but I quickly settled on an apartment in Surry Hills. And even though I’m a country boy at heart, Surry Hills has pretty much become “home”. You can always pick the difference between someone from the city and someone from the country: people from the city ask you what you do for a living, people from the country ask you where you’re from.

When I first arrived in Surry Hills in 1995, it was still pretty “rough”. Even now, there are still “rough edges” which I love. One of my earliest memories of being in Surry Hills was being in the Clock Hotel bottle-shop (there was still a “drive through” on Crown Street) when an armed robbery began. While all of the action was taking place, I simply lowered myself and hid behind a stack of beer slabs.

I’ve never told my family in the country about the incident, because I knew they’d worry. Their only knowledge of Surry Hills was of my Aunty Molly who lived here in the 1930s and 1940s, long before the gentrification. Though they don’t worry as much since they’ve visited me, I still think they worry about me living in the city, and hope one day I’ll return home to the country. And yes, I might, sometime in the next decade, though work keeps me here right now.

Since the age of twelve, I’ve been a volunteer and then later worker in radio. Although I’ve worked in commercial and community radio, I’ve mostly worked for the ABC, as a presenter, and then more recently as a manager. I love sound. For me, the sounds of Surry Hills are the rumble of early morning traffic on Cleveland Street and the annoying sounds of koels, that I still associate with walking home from Oxford Street, in the early hours of the morning.

Though work brought me to Sydney, there was also the allure of Oxford Street. As a gay man who had lived most of his life in the country, but who visited Sydney from time to time, I couldn’t wait to get to know the gay scene here. The Oxford Hotel, The Midnight Shift, The Beauchamp, The Albury.

I look back with fondness, as so many of those bars have now closed. In the late 90s, I met a guy at Mardi Gras, and we fell in love. That’s how my short-term move to Sydney became more permanent. After a while, he fell “out of love” with me, and he’s now married to a woman, and living in Hobart. We all caught up for dinner a couple of times when I was recently working there. “Corey Bernardi’s head would explode at the thought of that”, I joked to a couple of a friends. Though I still visit Oxford Street on a semi-regular basis, but I now feel (aged 52) like I’m “too old for that”, and I’m not one for dating apps. Now, I’m far more likely to be at home watching Netflix on a Saturday night than out clubbing somewhere.

And Surry Hills twenty years after arriving? What worries me about the changes to Surry Hills? The “gentrification” means there’s no longer “room” for some on the “fringe”.

There’s a homeless guy who has been living near my apartment on and off for a couple of years. He has a bunch of “issues”, and though he’s sometimes a little “scary”, other times he’s quite okay, and we’ve chatted together about all kinds of things. A few months ago I noticed a nearby neighbour had left an envelope of cash for him, so I’m obviously not the only one who knows and cares for Matt.

A few months ago it really struck home to me about the changes in Surry when I was coming out of my apartment block and was confronted by a man who almost shouted at me “Have you seen the homeless guy? Have you reported him to the police?”. “Yes, I have seen him”, I told him, “but he’s never caused me any concern, so I haven’t. Why would I?” The guy looked dumbfounded at my response.

A few days later, I saw Matt being addressed by the police, and being told he shouldn’t hang around in our neighbourhood anymore. “What exactly have I done wrong? What law have I broken”, he asked the police. They didn’t have much of an answer. In the same way there’s “room” for public housing at Northcott, and there’s room for so much cultural, gender, sexual etc, diversity, I hope we don’t end up with a neighbourhood that doesn’t recognise the “other”.