Suburbiana Mikey Robins: It may not seem like paradise, but Newcastle has always had a taste of the exotic

Mikey Robins
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Mikey Robins recalls the culinary delight of being a Novocastrian.
Mikey Robins recalls the culinary delight of being a Novocastrian. Credit: The Nightly

As someone who spent his childhood and early adulthood in Newcastle, I feel I need to confess that for many of those years I inflicted on myself something that I’m choosing to call Second City Syndrome.

You see, the thing is that as much as Newcastle was and is a glorious city by the sea I always knew that a three-hour drive (and yes back in those days it was a three-hour drive) down the highway there were the https://thenightly.com.au/australia/nsw/suburbiana-mikey-robins-it-may-not-seem-like-paradise-but-newcastle-has-always-had-a-taste-of-the-exotic-c-14180782 of Australia’s own Emerald City, which was how my child’s eye viewed Sydney.

This was first brought home to me when, as a young lad in the 1960s, we would drive Dad’s station wagon down the Pacific Highway with that obligatory stop at The Oak for a single cone of passionfruit ice cream.

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In the back seat, comic book in hand, it seemed the closer we got to Sydney the more excited I would become. And what would be the cause of that excitement?

Maybe watching the groundbreaking architecture of the Sydney Opera House forming on the shores of that bejewelled harbour? Or was it gazing in wonder at Australia Square, our ironically named circular skyscraper and at that time Australia’s tallest building?

The next time you have a handful of Tiny Teddies with your morning coffee take a brief minute to quietly whisper … Thank you Newcastle, thank you .

Looking back, my parents really did like to gawk at buildings, does anyone else remember those simpler times when spending a whole Sunday afternoon driving around looking at new sub-divisions was considered wholesome family entertainment?

Sadly it was none of the above that filled me with giddy expectations, oh no, it was the simple fact that Sydney had four, yes an almost mind-boggling four television stations, whereas Newcastle had just the ABC and local broadcaster NBN 3, unless of course you were affluent enough to spring for something we used to call a “Sydney aerial”, which was not only a possible danger to low-flying aircraft (OK I’m being a bit facetious, but they could be extremely and worryingly tall) and was definitely beyond the budget of anyone we knew.

Sydney had the dazzling lights and sophistication but Newcastle had its own attractions, including a claim on the origins of Tiny Teddies.
Sydney had the dazzling lights and sophistication but Newcastle had its own attractions, including a claim on the origins of Tiny Teddies. Credit: Supplied

So it was only a trip to Sydney that could bring me viewing and entertainment possibilities that seemed almost endless. Not just that, but the family we stayed with had a what was new for the time, or at least just new to my family, a telly with a remote control.

Sure it was around the same size as the speaker you would attach to your car if you went to the drive-in (something you kids can Google) and it was attached to a television that mostly resembled a monolithic teak sarcophagus by a cable that these days could transmit countless megabytes of digital information, but the sheer joy of punching the large plastic buttons and surfing between four whole channels was the main motivation for me asking my father the eternal kiddie question: ”Are we there yet?”

I recently recounted this experience to my nephew, and in between eye-rolls he feigned just enough interest to tell me he couldn’t believe how tedious my formative screen time sounded to him. But as the words were coming out of my mouth I thought just how soft they sounded compared to my late mother-in-law’s childhood stories of dodging snakes, walking miles to school and drawing water from a well on her childhood farm in Wingham.

I guess each generation has their own burden to bear.

Recently, however, my self-imposed burden of Second City Syndrome seems to have gone into remission. This is due to the one simple fact that I have recently confirmed something about my hometown that I had long suspected but had never actually seen verified in print.

Newcastle.
Newcastle. Credit: Created with Datawrapper

From the early 1960s on, Newcastle was a testing ground for many new products and inventions. Some were of national importance, such as polymer bank notes, but others were of a nature more near and dear to a chubby little couch potato such as myself.

I am talking about Newcastle’s role of being ground zero for trialling some of Australia’s more yummy and nutritiously dubious snacks and ice creams.

I first noticed the phenomena when as a nostalgic adult I would talk to my Sydney friends about the treats of our youth and realised that our timelines didn’t quite match when it came to such culinary pleasures as the Choc Burger (a lump of chocolate chip ice cream encased in two chocolate biscuits) or even that my recollection of Tic Tacs seemed to predate theirs.

As I spoke rapturously at one dinner party about a spin-off of the humble Paddle Pop that consisted of banana ice cream covered in chocolate and wrapped around a core of semi-frozen lime jelly they stared at me with looks that ran the gamut from disbelief all the way through to culinary and dietary horror.

Newcastle was ground zero for trialling some of Australia’s more yummy and nutritiously dubious snacks and ice creams. 
Newcastle was ground zero for trialling some of Australia’s more yummy and nutritiously dubious snacks and ice creams.  Credit: Nick Clark/stock.adobe.com

Ever since 1956 when Professor Cyril Renwick founded the Hunter Valley Research Foundation, companies national and multinational have been using the taste buds and shopping habits of Novocastrians to test out new products.

Some crashed and rightly burned — it was due to Newcastle’s brave consumers that the world was spared from “Greg Norman’s Pasta Sauces”, but companies such as MacDonald’s and KFC have long used Newcastle as a demographic microcosm for the nation and then the world!

So sure, maybe we didn’t have as many television stations when I was kid, but the next time you have a handful of Tiny Teddies with your morning coffee take a brief minute to quietly whisper … ”Thank you Newcastle, thank you” .

Mikey Robins is a beloved Australian comedian, author, broadcaster and history buff.

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