How Tracks photographer, Tony Nolan, ended up in the best-selling books by his mate, Robert G. Barrett
The recent TV dramatization of Robert G. Barrett’s Les Norton book series has been wildly popular. As Les, thumps, ducks and weaves his way through various misadventures involving gambling barons, hitmen, and vengeful brothel madams, Sunday night audiences can’t get enough.
However, while the TV series brings to life many of Barrett’s colourful characters a myriad more appear in the collection of twenty Les Norton books. Barrett, who grew up surfing in Bondi in the 60s, was the sort of author who was inspired to write about the people around him. If he found you interesting there was a good chance you would wind up on the pages of one of his books.
Veteran Tracks photographer, Tony Nolan, spent decades knocking about with Barrett in Sydney throughout the 60s, 70s, and 80s. They were flatmates for a while and remained good friends until Barrett passed away in 2012.
In the early days, the duo would chase waves, girls and good times up and down the east coast. Back then Barrett was still a butcher and Nolan did everything from shaping boards to working as a courier. In the 80s Nolan became one of Tracks most prolific lensman and was responsible for capturing a host of era-defining images.
Years later Nolan popped up as the character of Tony Nathan the photographer, in Barrett’s final book from the Les Norton series, ‘High Noon in Nimbin’. Nolan laughs loudly before temporarily assuming the identity of his character. “Some bloke belts me and sits me on my ass and Les has to step in… then Les and I pick up a couple of chicks after the wedding.”
The same book used the wedding of former Tracks editor and celebrated surf scribe, Sean Doherty, as inspiration for a chapter.
Both the books and the new TV show feature an eclectic array of colourful characters, fast-paced entertainment and a window into an Australia long-since forgotten. Meanwhile Nolan suggests many of his real life experiences with Barrett were just as outrageous.
Like Les Norton, Barrett could handle himself and in the 60s and 70s Bondi was more of a Bronx by the beach than the yuppy kingdom it is today. Needless to say, a little bit of self-defense could come in handy. The Royal Hotel in Bondi has recently been given a re-vamp by new owner, Justin Hemmes, but for decades The Royal had a reputation for being the kind of venue where the wrong glance sideways could get you into a serious situation. Nolan recalls being at the Royal with Barrett when he was holding court one night. “Bob’s carrying on and having a laugh. Then this big Kiwi walks up and rubs his hand across the back of Barrett’s head, messing his hair up. Then he kept walking and went for a piss.”
According to Nolan Barrett decided to return the favour, but knew that it would be seen as a provocation by the hefty Kiwi, and had a cunning plan.
“On the wall, there was an old mirror with one of those Tooheys paintings over it. Barrett walked past the guy and did exactly the same thing to his hair, but he never took his eyes off the mirror as he kept walking past. When the big kiwi came charging after him to try and throw a king hit, Barrett saw him coming in the mirror and swung around with an uppercut that sent the guy sprawling across the floor of the pub."
There was also the time the local beach inspector rolled into the Bondi butcher shop where Barrett was working. According to Nolan, Barrett instantly clocked him as the overly-officious bastard who had confiscated his surfboard at the beach. (At the time board registration was compulsory on Bondi.) Nolan makes it clear that Barrett didn’t miss his opportunity for revenge. “When the beach inspector ordered a bunch of hamburger patties Barrett went straight out the back and spat in them.”
On another occasion, Barrett, Nolan and the legendary, Kevin 'the Head' Brennan (won junior and senior NSW titles on the same day at Bondi in 1965) were returning from a day trip to Cronulla in the late 60s when they passed the Sydney airport where a new international terminal was under construction. “There was a three-foot, perfect wave breaking alongside where they were building up the sand for the runway,” recalls Nolan. “The water was all silty from the dredging, but we jumped out and surfed it by ourselves for hours.”
Nolan recalls another of the coast trips in Barrett’s FJ Ute ended far less gloriously. We went through a big round-about near Miranda and next minute I feel this thump. I look around and ‘holy shit’ there’s a car wheel rolling past us down the road. It was the back wheel off Barrett’s FJ. I’ll never forget that night. We just pulled over and left it there and got a cab back to Bondi.”
Nolan indicates that there are, ‘so many yarns’ he could tell about Bob Barrett, but what does he think about the TV adaptation of Barrett’s iconic character, Les Norton, who is played by Alex Bertrand?
“If Bob was alive he would be going, ‘Yes!’ A big, fit, solid bloke with red hair. He’d be so stoked.”