Sydney’s Kings Cross is still, it seems, the kind of neighbourhood where a 68-year-old man can get around in feathered millinery, a crisp ballerina’s tutu as white as his neatly trimmed beard, and a T-shirt that reads “FUCK ME, I’M FAMOUS”. Like the Cross itself, Bob Clayton’s life has in fact quieted down considerably in the nearly four decades he’s lived here. He rues the lockout laws in place since 2014. It’s not that he still frequents the clubs – “I’m a bit old for that” – but the place used to be more lively, especially on weekends, and he liked that. The lockout laws may have sent Sydney’s floating population of clubbers elsewhere in search of late-night fun, but it is gentrification – rising rents and impossible property prices – that’s driving out the eccentrics, drag artists, free spirits, outliers and outlaws who have long given the area its character and magic. The sight of Bob getting about in his tutu is reassuring: the Cross ain’t dead yet. I met Bob at the Saturday markets, where he sells The Big Issue. I admired his outfit. A short conversation revealed him as a big reader and engaging conversationalist. Intrigued, I signed up for two of his $5 “Walk on the Wild Side” tours: his “Sex, Drugs and Murder” introduction to the Cross and his “Gossip” tour of Elizabeth Bay, where we both live.
For our tours, Bob wears his tutu and a beribboned boater but eschews his strappy silver heels for comfortable men’s sandals. As we stroll around Elizabeth Bay, we spot a tiny elderly lady in a big hat and polka-dot trousers making her way into a cafe, leaning on a cane. “She’s a palaeontologist,” he says with reverence. “Mind if we say hello?” I follow him in. She visibly brightens at his approach. “How are you travelling?” he asks kindly. “Slowly,” she replies. Through Bob, I meet a number of my own neighbours. On Macleay Street, Bob points out the Potts Point Woolworths, once the site of a famous hotel. It was there that one of the most notoriously corrupt Kings Cross cops, Ray Kelly, who collected protection money from illegal abortion clinics, brothel owners and even bank robbers, threw himself a grand retirement party attended by the equally corrupt NSW premier, Robert Askin. Bob reveals a surprising connection: “Ray Kelly,” he tells me, “was Dad’s first cousin.” Bob’s father, a drover and “the most gentleman of gentlemen”, detested Kelly from the time they were young. “If Ray couldn’t break a horse,” he told Bob, “he’d shoot it.” Bob grew up in Thargomindah, in outback Queensland. His mother was a cook on the same station where his father worked. She’d been an illegitimate child who grew up in grinding poverty after her father died, gored by a bull, and her own mother stole the money he’d left for her upbringing. Neglected, malnourished and unschooled, she was saved by the intervention of the town’s mayor, who became a friend for life. Thargomindah, Bob says with pride, was the inspiration for Mary Hannay Foott’s poem “Where the Pelican Builds”. In the mid ’90s, he tried to compile a book on Australia’s 100 most popular poems. He was gratified to see that the responses he got put “Pelican” at number eight. That project fell over. In 1991, however, one year after Patrick White’s death, Angus & Robertson had published a volume of tributes to White that Bob edited. Contributors included Elizabeth Jolley and William Yang. As editor, Bob used the pseudonym Clayton Joyce, the name in reverse of his beloved, intellectually disabled sister who died at the age of 21. He was keen to pull together a second volume, about Judith Wright, but couldn’t raise enough interest. I meet Bob in Elizabeth Bay’s harbourside Beare Park the day after one of our tours, to talk about his life. He shows me the book about White, and gives me a copy of Hannay Foott’s poem along with a sheaf of other notes that, he explains, will help me to better understand him. These include his detailed fortnightly budget (gas and electricity $40, food $50 etc.) and his Patient Health Summary, which lists diabetes, hypertension and heart problems together with a long list of necessary medications (medicine $25). Rent eats up 75 per cent of his pension. But this is a neighbourhood that accepts and nourishes him. His sister and niece, who moved here from Queensland with him in 1980, live nearby and are still close to him. They come to his aid when he falls behind in his bills, though he hates asking them for money. The tours and The Big Issue help him stay afloat. Sometimes he sells the magazine at Circular Quay, but usually in civvies, as buses and the CBD are not as tutu-friendly as the Cross. Bob also shows me an essay he wrote that mentions his three suicide attempts in 2017, each one “derailed” by emergency interventions on the part of his GP. On our tour of Elizabeth Bay, we had stopped before the Catholic Parish of St Canice on Roslyn Gardens. Bob takes three or more meals a week in their soup kitchen and is grateful. Canice was also the name of the Catholic Brother who sexually abused him at boarding school from when he was nine to 14 years old. “You never get over it,” he told me. Bob gave testimony to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. Looking back, Bob can see that the abuse is why he dropped out of school at 16. He understands now why, despite growing up in a loving family who accepted his coming out to them at 20, and despite making a good start in life as a clerk and computer operator, he went off the rails with drink for years and still suffers from depression. “But,” he says, “you can’t live your life backwards.” We’re meditating on this when the singer Jeff Duff comes into the park. Duff is tall and thin and dresses like the love child of Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Today he wears exuberantly colourful pyjamas and is listening to music through earphones. He smiles a hello at us. Suddenly, he starts skipping, knees high, arms like wings, and then just as suddenly stops, and continues sauntering towards the seawall. Bob and I giggle. “He’s a very gorgeous dresser, isn’t he?” says Bob. Another neighbour comes along, pet cocky on shoulder. This reminds Bob of something that the late19th-century journalist and adventurer George Morrison once advised: when walking in the outback, follow the corellas at sundown, because they’ll take you to water. Bob says that growing up in the outback he was always made to carry water when walking. “No one,” he muses, “ever told me to follow the parrots.”
Bob and I giggle. “He’s a very gorgeous dresser, isn’t he?” says Bob.