By Judy Horacek

Edited by Sophie Cunningham


We moved to Doncaster when I was nine, and a few months after we got there, Doncaster Shoppingtown turned one.


We’d been living in the country for a few years for Dad’s work and then one day it was announced that Dad had a new job and we’d be moving back to Melbourne.  In preparation, my parents drove to the city one weekend to look at houses for sale and bought one then and there. Mission accomplished. Things were simpler in those days.


They brought back little jars of Darrell Lea Bo Peep lollies for us – tiny sweets in beautiful pastel colours, our first taste of the joys and sophistication of Melbourne. We looked up Doncaster in the Melways, Map 33, a page we’d never been on before, so near and yet so far from Northcote where Dad’s parents lived, and Balwyn, where Mum’s mum lived and where we had lived before for a time.  Everyone was excited. In this new promised land of Map 33, the roads weren’t only simple grids – some curved, twisted, or bulged, and even had different names like courts and rises. We pored over Map 33, thrilled by the huge park called Doncaster Municipal Gardens down the road, the fact that the swimming pool was only a short walk away, and that our new school was nearby.  Who knew street directories were such fonts of information?

Mum and Dad had brought back plans of the new house to show us, and from those we learned what an ensuite was, because Mum and Dad’s bedroom had one, and we delighted in the fact that as well as there being two bathrooms in the house, there was a bedroom for each of us children. Riches indeed. And it would actually be ours, not rented like the houses we’d lived in till then. I’d really wanted our new house to have two storeys, because there always seemed to be something magical about two storey houses, but I consoled myself with the steps that were in this house – two down into the formal lounge room, one up again into the kitchen, my introduction to the concept of split level.

Our new house was in a new subdivision, which had once been apple orchards. The edges of this subdivision represented everything to us about Doncaster and our transformed lives. One side was still apple orchards, one side was bordered by the huge park with through which dribbled the unloved, unwanted Ruffey’s Creek.  A third border was the busy road which we crossed to get to the wonderful swimming pool. And above the fourth border, another busy road, the not-so-far-away vista of Doncaster Shoppingtown loomed like a castle.


When we got to the new house, we discovered Shoppingtown was in our line of sight – the white tower striped blue with windows, full of offices, and the lower brown bulk of the mall. A whole shopping mall of our very own, even though we didn’t know whether to say ‘mal’ or ‘maul’. One end was a Coles supermarket, the other end Myers, which seemed the perfect arrangement of sense and sensibility. In between sat a multitude of shops ­­– good solid practical shops like Clark Rubber and McEwans hardware, Brash’s records, Norman Brothers stationery, Woolcraft, plus clothes shops and a couple of cafes. Cafes! The discovery of toasted ham sandwiches!

Being that close to all those riches was intoxicating. Not to mention the implicit promise of pyrotechnical celebrations every year (that we could see from our house!).

The new house was brand new, speculatively built by the building company that over a few years built nearly every house around.  When we moved there the area was still mostly empty blocks, which we thought of as fields. There were only about a dozen inhabited houses, occupied by young families like us, and a few empty brand-new spec-built houses for sale.  Not a week went by without another house being finished, another family moving in, coming from all over Melbourne and even interstate.


Our little pocket was suspended in time between the open country and farmland it had been, and the archetypal suburbia it would become.  We kids would climb over the back fence and head down to the park – going deep into it to the cliff or all the way to the road other side, or staying at the creek, daring each other to crawl into the giant drainpipe that the creek came out of.  We had it pretty much to ourselves. Or we would go to the latest house being built – playing forts and castles in the footings that had been dug, or on scaffolding that was put up as the walls grew, and when the wall frames were there we would speculate as to what each room was to be, walking on the joists before the floorboards were laid, magically crossing rooms without floors. And after the houses were finished we would play around them and underneath them.


Sometimes the developers called in ‘landscapers’, who created concrete edged kidney shaped areas of river stones in the lawns, and brought in a couple of big feature boulders, balancing them delicately, and adding the occasional log, which they would lean up against the boulders.  The final touch was a large stand of pampas grass which sprouted giant feathery tassles, and had long strappy leaves which would cut you as you ran past if you weren’t careful. But if you were careful, you could make these garden features fit into whatever game you wanted them to.


We had a huge space at our disposal, and we roamed in packs with other kids or in smaller groups or even alone. As long as we stayed within the space defined by the four borders, including the park itself, and came home in the evening when the street lights came on, we were free to wander wherever we wanted after school and on weekends. Shoppingtown was outside the borders and required special permission, which we often sought on Saturday mornings, and walked almost as the crow flies across the not-yet-built on blocks.  If someone had money we would get a red and yellow bucket of hot chips – who knew chips could come in a bucket?  Unless we wanted to sleep in, because ‘weekend shopping’ in those days meant Saturday between 9 and 12 noon.


The area was so new that when we first moved in that it wasn’t uncommon for salespeople to knock at the door in the evenings selling paintings or copper wall hangings for inside, and twisted metal mandalas for outside. All those square metres of brand new plasterboard and brick veneer in desperate need of decoration. The paintings were mostly black silhouettes of Australiany things against fierce red and orange backdrops – barns, windmills and trees against sunsets, the paint smeared on thickly and quickly.  The copper wall hangings were abstract, rectangular shapes beneath stippled copper sheeting. Later we learned to make these at school (ask me if you want to know how). Because my father was interested in art he would look through everything on offer and equally, because he was interested in art, there was never the vaguest possibility that he would buy any of it.

Doncaster was so new that it was actually a swinging electoral seat, another new term that it introduced me to, with Mum explaining that that meant that voters like her and Dad played a vital part in deciding who would win the election.

For a time the voters of Doncaster were very important. As for the other swinging of the 70s, Mum told me recently that there were rumours of ‘wife swapping’ (why is it the wives who get swapped?).  This talk swirled especially around the couple whose house was not only split level but had an actual sunken lounge room too.

Doncaster is a green and leafy suburb now, with a house on every block. The voting heyday of the area is long over – after the initial excitement it settled quickly into steadfast conservatism, a blue-ribbon capital L Liberalness. About the other swinging I don’t know, and anyway they were only rumours back then. Empty blocks sometimes appear fleetingly, and with increasing frequency, as another 1970s house gets pulled down and replaced with a bigger fancier house, one that stretches from boundary to boundary. Construction fencing goes up all around as the first step in the process – there’s no chance of anyone playing on the emptied block or in the half-constructed house.

Nowaday lots of people now use the park, which has been planted with many more trees, and boasts walking paths, barbecues and playgrounds. It also has the new fancier name of Ruffey Lake Park, and the part of the creek where we mostly played is now a carpark.

My parents still live in the same house. The concrete of the patio has been covered with terracotta pavers, and trees have grown all around, but you can still see Doncaster Shoppingtown from there. It’s several times as big now, a brooding grey mass taking over the hill. The old practical shops have gone, it is the new era of luxury brands. At night seen from the patio, its security lights make it blaze like my idea of industrial-military complex.

Judy Horacek is an Australian cartoonist, artist, writer and children’s book creator. Her cartoons have been pinned up on doors and walls all over the world.