Other Scrivener-connected personages and I have just spent the weekend in Byron Bay and enjoyed the experience to varying degrees. I had last visited ‘Byron’ twenty-six years ago, when I was still in high school. I have always remembered having had a grand time in this notoriously ‘laidback’ seaside town back in 1984, and consequently have spent the past quarter of a century talking about how very wonderful it would be to go back there, without, naturally, ever actually getting around to doing so.
This was partly because most people I know who have headed to Byron since my first visit have done so in order to attend the Blues Festival. I have always had to rule out attending this festival because, aside from the threat of being subjected to ‘jam sessions’, it takes place over Easter, a holiday on which I traditionally confine myself to wolfing down huge chocolate rabbits, despite feeling guilty about their smiling faces looking at me, and then spending Easter Monday in a mild depression. Now, though, I was spurred on finally to return to Byron by the prospect of its Writers Festival.
I felt glad that I had made the effort, as this event offered some high-quality entertainment, as well as the standard writers festival abundance of men with heads like Robert Altman’s, and people of both sexes who see fit to wear berets. I spent most of my time while I was there, though, thinking less about the festival than about the town hosting it and the surprises it offered up. For example, I was astonished to see before me the premises of Byron Bay Cookie Company and Byron Bay Hat Company, as it had never occurred to me that these enterprises were actually based in Byron Bay. I once worked at an ice-cream parlour that had a mock-Scandinavian name due to, I imagine, a belief held by those responsible that Scandinavians seemed somehow trustworthy when it came to things that are frozen. I had always thought that the ‘Byron Bay’ tag was, similarly, merely an invention to make the cookies seem like the most health-giving of health food and the hats to possess a certain magic that means that if you simply don this headware, you’ll never have to work again and can spend the rest of your life fucking around at the beach.
Most people, upon hearing that I was going to Byron and hadn’t been there for twenty-six years, were understandably moved to remark that I’d be sure to notice that the place had grown a great deal since last I’d seen it. I’d vividly remembered Byron as resembling a prettier, artsier, slightly shrunken Surfers Paradise but now found that it actually seemed a lot smaller to me, more the size of the hamlet in The Cars That Ate Paris. This makes no sense to me at all, unless it’s attributable to the same phenomenon that ensures that if you visit your primary school when you’re an adult it always looks on the miniature side, even though when you were a child it seemed an enormous, gloomy pile along the lines of the boarding school for orphans and ‘destitute children’ in Jane Eyre.
On my visit in 1984, I had headed to Byron to stay with a schoolfriend for a week. I was humbly grateful that her parents had been willing for me to come and stay for as long as I wanted. Even then, I knew that if I were a parent I wouldn’t be extending open-ended offers to stay in my house to anyone whatsoever, unless they were celebrities. It’s highly possible, of course, that neither my friend nor her parents had thought I’d actually take them up on their kind invitation and were unpleasantly surprised when they learned I was going to do so.
I’d had to travel to Byron from Sydney by train, which was a twelve-hour journey. My parents had seen me into the carriage, which had led to my mother insisting that I sit next to a benign-looking middle-aged woman, in order to avoid being raped at some point during the trip. This female was, indeed, as benign as she looked but the difficulty was that, probably due to this, she talked for the entirety of our time together. At one point, just as I finally got to a state approaching that of being sleep, she woke me with the inaccurate observation that Casino by night looked ‘like Fairyland’. So, when I finally arrived in Byron, it was like having been stuck on the train in Reds and alighting to find myself on Fantasy Island.
However, my recollections of that first visit to Byron have nothing to do with natural beauty. Actually, they are confined to the fact that a group of us went to see the Dynamic Hepnotics perform and that after the ‘gig’, a member of the band asked one of my party if she’d like to go swimming with him. So, now that I was finally back in Byron, it was strange to realise that I didn’t actually remember anything about the town, despite having been theoretically so attached to it these many years. But the weirdest thing of all for me when strolling around was simply the knowledge that I hadn’t walked these streets for over a quarter of a century. To my mind, one of the Kennedy assassinations should be the sort of thing that has happened more than twenty-five years ago, not me having gone on vacation and read a Rolling Stone interview with Julian Lennon. I felt as old as Richard and Julie Neville back when they seemed constantly to be struggling to come to terms with the advent of the nineteen eighties and the fact that they weren’t dropping acid.
When we landed back in Melbourne late on an icy Sunday night, the flight attendant pronounced over the intercom that ‘This weather makes you want to go straight back to the Gold Coast, doesn’t it?’ I did not share her sentiments. Many people in Byron Bay seem far too much like Barbara Hershey in The Baby Maker for my liking, and I found quite a few of them to be excessively relaxed, very often to the point of being completely unhelpful. While I was glad to have had my little holiday, I mainly felt happy to be living in 2010, when travelling in a plane is relatively cheap, so that, unlike the last time I had gone to Byron, it had taken me only two hours to get back home.