Gaudiness and charm

Sydney, Delia Falconer, Newsouth.

A resident will always have a personal, subjective view of a city. Delia Falconer’s beautifully written book on Sydney, now re-released after ten years, is saturated with her own experiences, rather than the more obvious and tourist-worthy. (Which I gather was the brief for all the books on capital cities in this series.) It is easy to be dazzled by Sydney’s glitz, but Falconer attends to the flipside, to the hidden Sydney, noting its contrasts, even contradictions.

Of course, this is the case in most cities, but perhaps Sydney’s juxtapositions are stronger. In contrast to Melbourne, where city blends into suburbs which eventually fade away into countryside, the bush penetrates the heart of Sydney city, and one can hit the abrupt edge of suburbs and suddenly be in wilderness.

(You’ll have to excuse the comparisons to Melbourne – I have lived in both, as has Falconer, who apologises for comparisons that come too easy. She contrasts the irreverence of Sydneysiders with more reserved Melburnians. She also says Sydney residents never think of Melbourne, whereas Melburnians are always looking down on Sydney. I found the opposite to be true, which is, I suppose, further evidence of subjectivity.)

Falconer emphasises the physicality of Sydney, and its effect on residents, and it’s true that Adelaide and Melbourne are flatter, the topography less obvious under the grid-like streets. While I was living in the inner west, it was always a joyful surprise to see cottages perched on, or built around, sandstone outcroppings. (Here is another contrast – Sydney’s warm sandstone and Melbourne’s bluestone.) And of course Sydney’s maddeningly indirect roads have to negotiate (at least in the inner suburbs) the octopus-like reach of the harbour. While Melbourne could be a European city, it’s hard to think of Sydney like this.

One of the joys of walking Sydney is its hidden history – colonial walls, hidden steps to the harbour. Falconer notes how water in particular runs through the city in hidden places. She writes of the weeping sandstone walls, the hidden creeks that emerge in basements in periods of heavy rain. (The return of the repressed.) This hiddenness of little coves and parks contrasts with the teeming high rises and restaurant strips. She writes of a couple in the 60s who fled communist Europe and, still concerned about prying secret police, lived for years in a cave near Roseville Bridge, unnoticed. Wander around the top of the Rocks, outside, say, the Garrison Church on Lower Fort Street, and it can seem weirdly quiet, especially with the Bridge hulking overhead.

Falconer also writes about the more unmissable psychedelic bloom of jacarandas in Spring. To that I would add walking amongst strewn, fragrant frangipani flowers, and the creeping figs obscuring walls and steps. Nature is always only barely contained, exuberant.

Then there is the light, which combined with the harbour – ‘crushed diamonds’ Clive James described it as – makes for exuberance. In contrast, can you imagine Ken Done or Brett Whiteley painting Melbourne?

But Falconer notes that the harbour, when it’s warm, can also be overripe, smelly, dirty. And there is the metaphorically dirty side to Sydney. Like Los Angeles, she says, the sunniness hides a seamier side. Falconer’s Sydney is predominantly this grittier side. She positively sings when describing its griminess. She’s attracted to the risqué, in contrast to the harsh policing of nonconformity that happens in the suburbs – each contributing to the forcefulness of the other. She contrasts the squalor and the showing off, though sometimes they are mingled. And she delights in the juxtapositions of crassness and intellect, gaudiness and charm, greed and generosity, as well as which values linger on in a city constantly on the move, epitomised perhaps by Arthur Stace writing ‘Eternity’ on pavements in an impermanent medium, chalk.

She writes of loss – the old, historic terraces of the poor, demolished to make way for roads and the apartments of the rich. But in a new afterword to the book she opines that the changing city might be becoming gentler. At the same time, eccentricities are lost – this is the complex nature of the changing face of a city. On top of inevitable change, she notes, rising waters, fire and plague have made us think of the city as more precarious.

She’s harsh on the suburbs – ‘Bible-belt’, ‘McMansions’ – perhaps rightly so when she writes on the racism that bubbled to the surface in the Cronulla riots. But this side of Sydney – usually quieter, less risqué and less squalid – not Falconer’s perhaps, but the Sydney of others – is equally Sydney (the Sydney of Scott Morrison, she notes). And it can have its positive side, including tolerance, multiculturalism, and genuine community, in sports clubs, schools and churches. Inevitably, it is impossible to embrace all of the city, and Sydney will always be someone’s particular Sydney. What’s yours?

Cracks of the urban landscape

Mirror Sydney, Vanessa Berry, Giramondo

Sydney’s less than perfect layout and topography of hills, valleys and coves lend themselves to a sense that there are discoveries to be made, histories hidden. Vanessa Berry’s book (itself distilled from her fabulous online diary of her perambulations, also entitled Mirror Sydney) builds on this, concentrating on the less touristy parts of Sydney, the parts that aren’t part of our cities’ elite history (government and civic buildings, galleries, grand houses, monuments), the parts that are hidden away, run down, ready to be toppled by the developer’s bulldozer, the wastelands and the superseded. Berry is not just a connoisseur of urban decay, although there is plenty of that here too. Neither is this just an exercise in Gen X, irony-laden nostalgia. She notes that the outdated shops, ugly fountains and the like have a worthy place in our cities, an unfashionable charm, and are as much of interest as more iconic public structures. She is not a crusader, just a chronicler of the out of the way and resonant with childhood memories, and her book, not unlike Delia Falconer’s fabulous history of Sydney, is a personal pry into the cracks of the urban landscape that are often papered over by mainstream society.

The book is illustrated with Berry’s line drawings, both precise and childlike, taking inspiration from the commercial art of mid twentieth century, appropriately, as her perambulations take her to places from the past, but the more recent past, the post-war suburban utopia, the traces of which remain in faded, forgotten signs, shopping strips, redundant infrastructure, recycled fashion.

Berry seeks out the places where consumer society has turned a dark corner. She visits the regular auction of unretrieved lost property from Sydney’s transport system and explores arcades that are more or less abandoned but harbor ultra-niche retailers still hanging on.

As far as the decayed goes, Sydney has its fair share of the abandoned and locked away, which have their own evocative pull. Like New York/Gotham, Sydney has never-completed underground train lines that the Cave Clan now like to frequent, complete with underground lakes where trespassers sail on dinghies, and abandoned platforms (that can be glimpsed briefly as one rides the escalator at one of the underground stations and knows where to look). Bankstown has a war-time underground control bunker, a couple of stories deep, which was burnt out after its decommissioning, but which still sits under residential developments. Then there is the Tank Stream, which Berry sloshes through in tour group gumboots, and a part of which can be glimpsed after a tucked away descent off Martin Place.