Cass Cumerford is a Royal George regular who has survived on into the twenty-first century. His blog, Beatnik Casbah, is a goldmine of information, memories, names and outrageous anecdotes - well worth a visit. Here he walks us through a typical day at The George, around 1965.
In the morning it awakes at 10-00 and allows the hung-over ones in to rest up and hide in its back room. Then the exceedingly lonely come sauntering in, shyly trying to appear as if they belong. They are its favourite clientele - but they don't yet know it. Regular devotees drift in around 11, hoping some group booze-up will soon develop. Around 11-45, a laughing Mrs G flogs her counter lunches. Dockworkers crowd the public bar. They're always hungry. By 12-15 their big boots possess 70% of the bar's foot rail. A pint of Millers dark tastes better with one foot 6 inches off the floor. It costs one shilling and nine pence for 400 ml! There are no chips or peanuts laid out in poofy little dishes for nibbles like in classy joints. Any free food would last but two minutes.
1-15, the pub is now full of boozy workmen on very long lunch breaks. It was perfect for we "beats". Mrs G occasionally slipped a free counter lunch to a few of her favourites if she knew they were broke. "But don't go telling everyone," she'd whisper. The first time she gave me a free meal I thought, "Wow, this is great .At last I've arrived! I've made it." It was my ultimate status symbol. I'd spent the rest of the afternoon mooching drinks, discussing the philosophical dimensions of the new revolution we were certain would soon transform the world into a heaven of loving enlightenment, or keeping a lookout for a "tourist" to con, or even rob.
Around 1-30 the beatniks and Genuine Old Push are assembling, eyeing every incoming stranger like gunfighters in a western movie. By 2-30 they've all mingled into one Democratic formation of bon homie.
Walk with me now from the bar through this connecting door and into the passageway. Hear how the bar noise behind us diminishes? Look, here's the inner sanctum, the "back room". It's relatively quiet. Have just a quick peek in and a listen. Folks are quietly conversing at two of the three big oval tables.
"Who's here?" someone asks.
"No one of any great note."
"Seen Les Robinson today?"
"He got a job at Garden Island"
"No - it's a grouse job. He's a tally clerk!"
"What a bludge!" A dozen individual conversations begin growing until the joint buzzes with sound. Walk four paces north and come into the saloon bar. Here are small intimate tables where you could chat up a potential lover. The drinks cost a few pence more but you could connect with some influential shakers and movers if you're lucky. There's some tourists who'd heard the joint was a great place to mix with the underbelly of Sydney. And in the corner, a couple of intellectuals fervently debating art, politics or sociology. Libertarians also meet here to discuss and pursue freedom.
Some days around this time, if we were excessively broke or weak with hunger, Dutch Andy, Bates and myself would roam around holding out empty tin pie plates and begging, "Small change please! Help feed the starving beatnik!" Not many gave, but we'd get enough to buy hot salty two-penny potato scallops from the next-door fish shop.
3 P.M.-- a longhaired spunky brunette feeds a two bob coin into the public bar jukebox slot (five plays for two shillings) She chooses "Satisfaction"," Out of Time", "House of the Rising Sun", Dylan's "Rainy Day Women" and "Gates of Eden". Cats on nearby stools nod approvingly at her choices. Phil the Pill yells, "Press 'Subterranean Homesick Blues!’" but Mrs G tells him, “Shut y' cakehole -- it's her money." The public bar smells of spilt beer .
By 5 pm, the three sections have mingled, and the joint floats on a warm cloud of bonhomie. Mrs G now flogs the evening hot meals. By 8 pm the day's alcohol has taken effect, and The George swings with loud rock'n'roll, arguments and laughter. There's no security guard, only a couple of barmen, who can handle any biff-ups.
As a teenager, I'd left Adelaide to search for the kind of people Kerouac had written about. It took me 5 years and 5 vagrancy laggings, but eventually I'd found this joint of beat subculture. The mixing with what I considered "real" individuals was a turning point in my life. No longer was I so alienated. I had found my Greenwich Village, Soho and Montmartre. That was the beauty of The George.
At 10 pm closing time, I 'd mingle on the crowded footpath outside while the Push decided where to continue grooving. Two or three nights a week there'd be an all-night party of some sort. An invitation was not necessary. It was assumed that if you'd found out where the party was you'd earned the right to attend. On nights when nothing was happening, I'd head for the 'Cross.
In those days it was sometimes dangerous to have long hair. Yobbo youths enjoyed picking fights with "longhairs". Heading toward the Cross, we'd walk fast and try to look butch, so that no bodgies or squares would pick on us. The route we took was like the journey to Mecca. Always the same: East along King St then through Queens Square, Cathedral Street Woolloomooloo, turn right at McElhone, then through two alleys and we were in the zone.
The first place to check if it was swinging was the Piccolo Bar, a coffee lounge in Roslyn Street. It's the one beat joint still open today with the same style and décor. A balding stocky bloke called Ossie ran it in '67. Bi-sexual Ali shared a house with Ossie. It was (and still is) a magnet for anyone a little different.
A loveable Italian movie aficionado named Vittorio is the present maitre D. Many famous show biz folk have hid in there ever since the '50s. Bobby Darin, the blonde rocker Heinz, Marianne Faithful, Gordon Chater, Rick Nelson, James Taylor. Vito has their signed photos on the walls. The chairs and tables are jammed close together and it's impossible not to become involved with other customers. It was one of only five joints in the Cross that stayed open all night. The jukebox was the only one in town that featured modern jazz.
The second coffee shop to check out was the Aristocrat (where Hungry Jacks stood until 2004). But it wasn't as intimate as the Picc.