What was the meaning of the single word that up to 2 billion people saw linger on Sydney’s Harbor Bridge after the New Year’s Eve fireworks faded out? Why, out of all the New Year’s celebrations broadcast around the clock that day, did this one make you stop and think?
The Word on the Bridge
Inside the largest bell at the old Sydney Post Office on Martin Place is a single word written in yellow chalk. It appeared in about 1963. The ‘i’ has almost vanished, but the word ‘Eternity’ can still be seen. (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 1999)
The word Eternity, always written in copperplate handwriting with a flourish on the ‘E’, and underlined by the tail of the ‘y’, has fascinated Sydney-siders for almost seventy years.
It was, for over a decade, a mystery debated in the leading papers and their letters columns. It is memorialized in the architecture of Sydney Square. It was the subject of a 1994 documentary, and crops up every now as an inspiration for exhibitions and art works. Most recently, it was used as the finale, the resolving note, of Sydney’s Millennium celebrations.
There are two sides to its story. It is, on one hand, the story of Arthur Stace, a man who was a petty criminal, a bum, a metho’ drinker between the First World War and the great depression. This is, of course, quite a uniquely Australian profile for a hero. This is a country that invariably favors underdogs; one, which, against all history, romanticizes its bush ranging, convict past; one which (often) applauds its non-conformists, and one, which likes a drink. Perhaps that is part of the mystique of Eternity — the anti-hero. Perhaps also, it was his dedication to the task.
Because he wrote that word, in that elegant copperplate, in chalk and in crayon, for thirty-seven years, on the sidewalks of Sydney — over half a million times. No one knew who he was, and he preferred it that way. The mystery grew: the word had evident spiritual overtones — it was called a one word sermon — who was writing it, and why? But no one knew, for years and years. Perhaps this mystery, so long sustained, instilled the fascination. Perhaps also, it was the suggestive power of the word itself.
Because Eternity is also is the story of one pure thought: the human fascination with that simple word, and what it calls to mind. Time without end? Another World? Perfection? God’s Country? What did Eternity mean to Arthur Stace? What motivated him to write it half a million times across a city on the end of the world? Why did it fire their imagination, then and now?
Perhaps the sudden breaking through, the warningless arrival of Eternity defies analysis, and must just be experienced. Several days before the celebrations in Sydney, as the fireworks were being finalized, and commuters on the bridge were wondering why E, Et, Ete, Eter, Etern was being spelled out on the superstructure, an article in one of our main papers read:
It was an unforgettable moment of my childhood. I went to fetch the milk
at our front gate one morning and on the footpath was the chalked word
Eternity. (Sydney Morning Herald, Dec 1999)
Arthur Stace, 1884-1967.
Arthur was born in 1884, in Balmain, just west of central Sydney. His mother and father, his two brothers and two sisters were alcoholics; his sisters, brothel operators, living in constant friction with the law. He grew up in poverty, looking after himself and stealing as needed. At twelve he was made a ward of the state, but received no great education. At fourteen he found his first job, in a coalmine, and at fifteen he was in jail for the first of many visits. Already he was well on the way to alcoholism himself.
In his twenties he lived in Surry Hills in Sydney’s inner south, running liquor between pubs and brothels, connected with gambling and housebreaking, until the start of World War One. He served in France, returning partially blinded in one eye, and suffering the effects of poison gas. From then until the middle of the Great Depression he slid further down into alcoholism, until he was drinking methylated spirits at sixpence a bottle, and living on handouts.
On August 6th, 1930, he attended a meeting for men at “Barneys”, as St. Barnabas’ Church on Broadway is generally known. Most were there, for the food, but there was a message first.
Noticing six tidily dressed people near the front (in marked contrast to the bulk of those attending), he asked the man sitting next to him, a well-known criminal: “Who are they?”
“I’d reckon they’d be Christians”, he replied.
Stace said: “Well look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they have got,” — and he slipped down on his knees and prayed.
Hardly a remarkable event, on the surface of it, but he found that he was subsequently able to give up drinking, and said, “As I got back my self respect, people were more decent to me.” — And so he was also able to find steady employment.
Some months later in the Burton Street Baptist Church in Darlinghurst, of which he was later a member for many years, he heard a noted “give-’em-Hell” preacher, the Rev. John Ridley speak, or rather shout: “I wish I could shout ETERNITY through all the streets of Sydney!”
Stace, recalling the day, said: “He repeated himself and kept shouting ‘ETERNITY, ETERNITY’ and his words were ringing through my brain as I left the church. Suddenly I began crying and I felt a powerful call from the Lord to write ETERNITY”. I had a piece of chalk in my pocket and I bent down there and wrote it.”
Stace, whose limited education had left him barely able to write his own name legibly (as more than one reporter confirmed), found that he could write Eternity, however, quite elegantly, two foot wide on the pavement.
A Brief History of Eternity
He would get up in the early hours of the morning, and leave his home in Pyrmont at 5:00 or 5:30am, after praying an hour or so. He would go where he believed God had directed him that particular day, and write every hundred metres or so on the pavement (sidewalk), as it seemed most visible. Eternity. And he’d be home by ten that morning.
He went all over: Wynyard, Glebe, Paddington, Randwick, Central Station a very slight figure, 5’3″, grey-haired. He experimented with variations at times, but in the end he finished as he had begun — Eternity. Others claimed responsibility for the messages, for they were the object of a prolonged and public curiosity, the subject of columnist’s review and speculation, but he did not come forward. He saw his mission as evangelistic, but he didn’t want the publicity for himself; it was a thing between him and God.
It wasn’t until 1956 that the puzzle was solved. Stace was the cleaner, and a prayer leader at the Burton Street Baptist Church, where the Rev. Lisle M. Thompson was the minister. Lisle one day saw Arthur writing Eternity on the pavement (sidewalk), not knowing he was being seen. He asked him: “Are you Mr. Eternity?”
Arthur replied, “Guilty, your honor.”
When, on the 21 June 1956, the Sunday Telegraph published an interview with Arthur Stace, it was all out in the open. Arthur, though, continued as he always had, leaving his now slightly less enigmatic message all over the city just as before. He died of a stroke on July 30, 1967, in a nursing home, aged 83, and left his body to Sydney University, so that the proceeds could be given to charity.
But “his word”, as one paper referred to it last week, Eternity, persisted in the public mind. Vigorous exchanges in the papers and in Sydney Council Meetings surrounded suggestions that a statue of him kneeling on the ground, writing, be erected in Railway Square, or that ‘Eternity’ plaques, on the pavements (sidewalks) of the inner city, be commissioned in his memory.
Two years after he died, the Sydney poet Douglas Stewart published the following lines about the graffiti artist:
“That shy mysterious poet Arthur Stace
Whose work was just one single mighty word
Walked in the utmost depths of time and space
And there his word was spoken and he heard
ETERNITY, ETERNITY, it banged him like a bell
Dulcet from heaven sounding, somber from hell.”
When the Architect Ridley Smith unveiled Sydney Square, The Sydney Morning Herald in Column 8 said, on the 13 July 1977: “In letters almost 21cm (8in) high is the famous copperplate message ETERNITY. The one word sermon gleams in wrought aluminum. There’s no undue prominence. No garish presentation. Merely the simple ETERNITY on pebbles as Arthur Stace would have wanted it.”
Smith, the paper suggested, had heard Stace preach on the corner of George and Bathurst streets, as he often did, many years before, and the inspiration stayed with him. [In a much more bizarre coincidence, Smith had in fact been named after the noted evangelist, John Ridley, in the first place.]
In 1994, a well-received documentary was shot, interviewing those who had known Arthur Stace, and featuring dark, atmospheric scenes of a man, by night, combing the streets of Sydney, writing Eternity on the pavements.
And when the State Library of New South Wales recently hosted an exhibition of the lives of Sydney’s most notable eccentrics, his name was prominent in the introduction, as perhaps the best public symbol of a group to which he was not, in the end, admitted. Because eccentrics are lighter than life. You take them or leave them, you find them amusing, diverting, escapist. But that is not how we respond to Stace’s Eternity and so, intuitively, we exclude him from their company. Not because of any superiority to that group, but precisely for the opposite reason: eccentrics are often gifted and astonishing people, but really, he was not. He was a normal man, one who pretended nothing more, who’d had a hard life, but who was driven along by a calling, and whose impact was just the normal and the natural impact of a sublime idea.
And finally, there at the very end of Sydney’s half-hour fireworks spectacular, on the New Year’s eve of the new millennium, just as we all had reconciled ourselves to the inevitable let-down of it ending, there emerged, out of the dissipating clouds of smoke and light, the word again, and hung there for hours out of time — Eternity. Crowds of partygoers on the foreshore, many of whom knew nothing of the term’s significance, cheered spontaneously. It was the word for the moment.
Ignatius Jones produced the celebrations in Sydney. He said he had chosen to honor Stace’s legacy as a fitting way to mark a new era:
“It’s incredibly Sydney. It symbolized for me the madness, mystery and
magic of the city. On the one hand there’s the meaning of the word in its
temporal sense endash and on this night of fellowship and good cheer, it
shouldn’t just be about one night. The word says that this celebration
should be eternal in human life.
“But it also says a lot about Sydney that Arthur Stace, who grew up in a
brothel, came back from war shell-shocked and became an habitual criminal
and an alcoholic, should be able to reinvent himself and try to bring joy
and meaning into people’s lives.
“This is a quintessentially Sydney message and one we want to spread.”
It’s interesting to briefly speculate what Arthur Stace might have thought of that. He would, we may suppose, have been delighted to have seen ‘his word’ again, globally televised, in fifty foot high letters on the most visible structure of the city that he spent so many years, well, defacing. But what more would he have thought, knowing why he wrote it so widely and often? The Lonely Planet Travel Guide, noting our fine collection of harbors here in Sydney, comments — most amusingly in this present context — that:
“You would have to die and go to heaven to find a better setting for a city.”
For Stace, of course, this was precisely the issue. For him, Eternity went well beyond being “able to reinvent himself and try to bring joy and meaning into people’s lives.” He knew that he couldn’t reinvent himself — not on his own. Once, after yet another court appearance, he begged the Sergeant of Regent Street Police Station to lock him up to help him get dried out.
His thoughts on the affair, would surely have included a message that comes out of Eternity, that offers hope both for Eternity and for this life. He would call this a gospel, and say that he found it effective — and well worth thirty-seven years of his life. He’d call it a bargain. The best he ever had.
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E-mail: email@example.comThe author can be contacted at:
Nigel A. Chapman at phone: 61 2 9599 7334