The blue wedge

The Harbour: A City’s Heart, A Country’s Soul, Scott Bevan, Simon and Schuster

Sydney Harbour is a magnificent place, its twists and turns offering glimpses, then vistas, its backwaters nestling boats, beaches and bushwalks, its wide spaces setting off rolling hills where buildings jostle for prime position, and where scrubby, rocky bushland still hangs on. It is a microcosm of the way Australian urban landscape contends with older, rougher nature, and the way we crowd around the oceanic edges of our continent. It has inspired much writing, and there are fine books about it, including the relatively recent history by Ian Hoskins. But ABC journalist Scott Bevan’s new book manages to be personal and psychogeographical, and like a harbour cruise on a perfect day, its end comes with some reluctance.

It is hyperbole to suggest, as does the subtitle of Bevan’s book, that the harbour is the ‘country’s soul’. After-all, it is unlikely Perth or Cairns residents give it much thought from one month to the other. But it is more beguiling than Melbourne’s Port Philip Bay, Botany Bay or the Swan or Brisbane rivers, and there are aspects of it, when you are by or on it, that snag the heart, especially when the sun lights up the ‘crushed diamond water’, as Clive James once put it. ‘It’s like a postcard’, says one boatshed owner. There is something spiritual about its presence as a calm, blank space in the middle of urban busyness that makes harbour-goers resort to religious metaphors. ‘It’s heaven on earth’ says one, simply. Bevan’s book labels it the ‘city’s heart’, but it is Sydney’s lungs, giving breathing space, a blue rather than green wedge.

It seems a fair argument that the harbour has remained prominent in the nation’s consciousness partly because its abundance contrasts with the country’s dry centre, especially since the long hope of finding an inland sea never materialised. (The explorers’ hunches were correct, they were just a few million years too late.)

The harbour is also unavoidable, intentionally so. Recently it has become a zone of pleasure. One could say it is the city’s erogenous zone, an interpretation made more explicit by the paintings of Brett Whiteley, who painted the harbour’s curves with the same approach he took to his paintings of female nudes. (It is difficult to imagine his sunny hedonism sprouting from gritty Melbourne. The same perhaps for John Olsen.) But the city was established here because the harbour provided a good working waterway. Until freeways took over, it was the spine of the city; the transport it allowed helped keep the city together and connected it with the world. Bevan spent a year kayaking around the harbour, exploring virtually every reach, and he notes the decline of the ‘working’ harbour. Tugs, barges, tankers, trawlers and naval vessels have largely gone. This is good for the health of the harbour, but there are those who miss its working class aspect.

Bevan notes the elitist prices of real estate when you ‘just add water’. Industrial land is continually redeveloped into apartment blocks with water views (or ‘glimpses’). What was previously principally a trade route is now a status symbol, and over time the poor and working classes have been pushed away from the harbour, once its aesthetic worth was understood. As they tend to do, the rich try and keep for themselves what should be shared (‘private landing – no entry!’, etc.), but even in Hunters Hill you can find public access if you look for it. And the harbour remains democratic. One can catch a ferry or kayak, as Bevan does, or walk its many harbour-side reserves.

The harbour has its darker side. There are sharks and there is wild weather. To stretch the body metaphor further, the harbour has also tended to be the city’s bowels. Stormwater drains connect to the harbour. Earlier, sewerage used to pollute it, and sediments still contain toxic waste from years of industrial discharge. While it has cleaned up considerably in the past couple of decades, ubiquitous plastic rubbish is still collected by the barge full.

Among the city’s bustle people find something meditative about being by or on the water, which engenders a sense of responsibility for it, in theological terms what we might call stewardship. The harbour may inspire greed and pride, but it also inspires an attitude in tune with the original indigenous view that the harbour doesn’t belong to individuals but to all of us, including those in the future yet to enjoy its bounty.

(Originally reviewed for the Uniting Church’s Insights magazine.)

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