Concreted wastelands

Killing Sydney, Elizabeth Farrelly, Picador.

English Pastoral, James Rebanks, Allen Lane/Penguin.

These two books may be about two very different locations – Sydney city and a Lake District farm – but they are similar in their concern over the modernization process and how that has impoverished our lives and the places we live and work in.

Killing Sydney, from architect, columnist and former city councilor Elizabeth Farrelly, is an angry book but it is anger born from seeing the destruction of the Sydney she and many of us love. Part of Sydney’s charm is its patina, its layered history and trees and sandstone, its surprises and eclecticism. Farrelly lived in (inner city) Redfern, from where she could see the Centrepoint tower at the end of her street, in the ‘heart of things’, but this heart is increasingly expensive, competitive and compromised by uninspired development. Redfern, which is not alone, is being turned from a haven for Aboriginal people into a suburb of bland high-rise.

Farrelly describes terraces replaced by soulless apartment buildings or taken over by the ‘barrister classes’, the poor being turfed out of the inner city, public parks ‘activated’ by being built over, heritage listings ignored by councils and a (conservative) NSW government hell-bent on selling off public assets to developers, usually with the excuse that more housing is needed but, says Farrelly, really just for developer profit.

The public gets cronyism, concreted wastelands, destruction of century-old trees and heritage buildings for no good reason, not to mention an old-fashioned focus on roads rather than public transport that, she says, threatens to turn Sydney into – God help us – Canberra (a city she suggests is designed for cars, not people). And this is not just inner Sydney – Parramatta is an epicentre of developer philistinism.

Farrelly gets quite philosophical at times, even suggesting that city design can have feminine elements – inviting, surprising, nurturing – but that many cities suffer from an excess of macho bravado – all surface and competition (Sydney’s new casino being a prime example). She overstates the self-centredness of the suburbs. They can be places of community-building too, with sports clubs, churches and the like. And she overstates at times the communal aspects of parks and cinemas – I think it’s a stretch to say going to see a movie fosters community spirit. But she is rightly concerned that a focus on homes as self-sufficient fortresses doesn’t help, and Sydney planning and NSW government decisions disastrously echo, perhaps unsurprisingly, the dominant neoliberal ideology that says selfishness (rather than community) is the driving force of society.

Both books reference Jane Jacobs, the American critic of twentieth century city planning, who argued for, among other things, variety in helping make cities livable. James Rebanks, author of the best-selling The Shepherd’s Life, argues in English Pastoral that this equally applies to farming, and he spruiks a return to a more traditional, rotational style of farming. Farrelly makes the point that the city is unnatural but that it can interact with nature in good and bad ways; Rebanks similarly argues that farming will always involve modification, and he is not against innovation, but he likewise thinks deeper about the long-term and the healthier. This has added weight because Rebanks is a farmer who writes, not just a writer who writes on farming.

If Canberra is Farrelly’s example of getting it wrong, the American Midwest is Rebanks’ – he laments the industrial scale, the monocropping, the reliance on fossil fuel and chemicals, the loss of tradition and wildlife, the money pouring into the pockets of corporations. He describes growing up on his family farm with the looming threat of American-style farming, how his grandfather disdained the ‘modern’, how his father tired to keep up with their modernizing neighbours and how the industrialization and monoculture wrecked the soil and pride of farmers, not to mention the wildlife that contribute to the health of the land. An evocative illustration of this is his remembering that when he was a child, flocks of birds would follow the plough; by the time he inherited the farm, the birds were gone and the soil was lifeless. With a renewed sensitivity to what the land needs, his farm now is not the most profitable, but it is healthy.

Farrelly mentions how Tony Abbott once lectured a group of businesspeople that a Christian’s job is to ‘subdue’ the earth (read: let development rip) and how megachurch prosperity theology encourages greed, but it would be a shame if this bad theology was the last word. Rebanks quotes Leviticus’ requirement that part of the harvest should be shared with the vulnerable, and he takes that to mean wildlife and future generations as well, a nicely holistic and caring take. And Farrelly, in offering a way forward for revitalizing urban communities, speaks in terms no less than those of Christian love – concern for others, living humbly. Christian values probably don’t come up that often in urban planning sessions, but our cities and countryside can be more community-oriented places if we challenge the modern selfish paradigm and are more attuned to communal gain, preservation and a long-term outlook.

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?

Feeling landscape

Unquiet Landscape, Christopher Neve, Thames and Hudson.

Sydney, Ken Done, Thames and Hudson.

Twentieth century art is dominated by a turn to abstraction, but there is a whole other, less publicised current of art in figurative and landscape painting. Landscape was, pardon the pun, fertile ground where artists worked through issues of representation and a loosening of technique without turning entirely inwards. Indeed, the chase for the goal of pure abstraction was something of a chimera because we can’t get away from landscape – we operate as humans in the context of our surroundings, both near and far, wild and tamed.

Unquiet Landscape, a re-issued classic, explores a number of mid-twentieth century British landscape painters, from Paul and John Nash to Ben Nicholson to Stanley Spencer to Sheila Fell. In this extraordinary book Christopher Neve is cautious in his approach, saying that it is difficult to write about painting properly, as its form is a way to communicate without words. At the very least we need to come at it sideways, which Neve does, but he succeeds enormously, his caution meaning that when he progresses, he is unusually penetrating. Neve writes that painting is a means of inquiry, a ‘thesis’, and of course people have individual ways of working these things through, something Neve is focussed on.

It is interesting how much the spiritual breaks in when talking about these artists’ work. Some artists, such as Spencer, painted explicitly religious themes. David Jones, though painting landscapes, saw his work as praising God. The individuality of artists, says Neve, brings new perspectives and originality, an opening up, giving a ‘glimpse of eternity’. Think about Spencer for a moment.  He painted religious subjects, having been enthralled by the biblical stories as a child, and he thought his religious works were his most important. But he set most of his paintings in Cookham, his hometown, suggesting that miracles can happen anywhere. He thought of the town as a ‘suburb of heaven’, and Neve thinks Spencer’s paintings didn’t need the biblical content to be powerful spiritually. They have a quietness and authenticity, and convey the ‘sanctity of ordinary things’, a profound comment. Great artists such as Van Gogh make the everyday a revelation. Winifred Nicholson thought the religious and the artistic are similar – they are about seeing something more in the everyday. David Jones thought of his landscape paintings as pure symbolism (though we don’t have to go that far). Spencer painted biblical miracles, but he also painted the miracle of blossom in Spring. Like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, this is to see the sparkle of the divine in every leaf, to see the wonder and surprise in a world as joyous Creation.

Spencer not only painted the picturesque. He could see the marvellous in wasteland (check out his painting of piles of rusting iron). We can see, here, Lucian Freud’s art – particularly pictures of piles of rags or tangled weeds – as a descendant of Spencer’s. I don’t think Freud is just being a smartypants – ‘look what I can do’ – he has that sensibility of great artists who see the richness, the blessing, in what others might see as monotonous.

For artists such as Spencer and John and Paul Nash, war affected their view of the land. Part of John Nash’s reaction to being back in the English countryside was being ‘amazed’ to be alive, and it threw the landscape into starker relief. In contrast, it takes a surety of vision to see the blessing of landscape during war. In Eric Ravilious’s paintings war machines simply replaced farm machinery and they could not banish what Neve calls his ‘lightheartedness’, by which he means positivity of vision rather than flippancy. After the war, David Bomberg spoke about feeling more than seeing the landscape, evoking again the idea of the artist’s individuality of response over photorealist capture. Incidentally, or perhaps significantly, his sweeps of bold colour remind me of recent Australian Indigenous art, which of course ‘feels’ landscape differently than a European single-point perspective.

This feeling, not to mention lightheartedness, is present in the paintings of Ken Done. Thames and Hudson have brought out a series of small but good-value themed books on Done’s art, including one on his Sydney paintings. Although entitled Sydney, the book is all about Sydney Harbour – don’t expect paintings of Cabramatta or Bankstown. It seems that for Done, Sydney simply is the harbour, that great negative space that bisects the city (or divides it into more numerous vistas and hideaways, coves and points). Even so, grouped together like this, the paintings show Done’s capacity for variety.

Done’s art was synonymous with the optimistic, celebratory Sydney of the 1980s. Vibrant colour was the most obvious aspect of this, but he is just as likely to talk about shape (form) and describes himself as ‘playing’ with shapes, particularly, in this context, the forms of the Bridge and Opera House. Flattened planes and a childlike simplicity abound, but he has the eye – boat sheds and yacht clubs are rendered more realistically, though with Fauvish colours. Paintings of Chinamans Beach have more depth, but with a Chagall-like pastel fuzziness. While Brett Whiteley blues feature, he also plays with colour – on a hot day the harbour is orange and unrelenting, and there are plenty of harbour-at-night paintings.

The harbour is quintessentially Australian, so it makes some sense to find affinities with central Australia, equally iconic. He sees similarities in the shapes of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the Bridge and Opera House and renders the latter two in browns and reds and dots. His parrot-bright paintings too are similar to the palettes of the recent, almost psychedelic Indigenous art, conveying the uncontrollable joy and light spilling from the Australian landscape.

One painting is particularly interesting for its unusual injection of the biblical. Entitled ‘Easter Sunday Morning’, it shows a still dark sea and a pale dawn, with not a clear sun but gentle smudges of yellow as if through haze or fog. There are a few boats, the three most prominent sporting masts like crosses, evoking classic pictures of Easter sunrise with empty crosses. Night always precedes the bright dawn. Here there is a hint of the darkness of Good Friday being banished by the light of Easter. Done could be accused of naivety in his Ravilious-like sunniness (and I confess this sunniness is not always to my taste), but he is not blind to the darker side (he picks up rubbish on the beaches every day on his morning walk). But his vision seems to be a focus on the beauty and light – the spirit-filled – as a kind of thankfulness for the blessing of the sun-filled landscape.

The longer-term view

Life: Selected Writings, Tim Flannery, Text.

Tim Flannery’s grandiosely titled Life is a collection of writings: some book reviews and articles, some chapters of previous books that some readers will already be familiar with.* One such chapter is about Charles Darwin, his sand walk, his theories and his caution about sharing them. As in much of his writing Flannery links observations of nature and science with a more holistic and longer-term view of the world, and in particular the crisis of human-induced environmental disturbance, which comes, in a roundabout fashion, even into his writing on Darwin.

In the replicated chapter on Darwin, Flannery takes the well-worn but somewhat simplistic and distorted path of describing how Darwin’s evolutionary theory clashed with religious certainty. There is some truth in this, but also more to be said, and if we go back to the original book the chapter comes from, however – Here on Earth – the narrative continues in the following chapter with a slightly different perspective, and, in fact, this chapter may be the more interesting because Flannery describes how Darwin’s ideas became Darwinism, and took turns Darwin perhaps did not anticipate, particularly when the concept of survival-of-the-fittest (not Darwin’s term) was applied to human society, and was used to justify Victorian selfishness – slums, empire, colonialism, eugenics.

Flannery contrasts Darwin with Alfred Wallace, who came up with evolutionary theory at the same time as Darwin but didn’t get the credit – Wallace’s outsider social status in hierarchical Victorian England being most of the problem. Flannery notes Wallace’s tendency towards the all-encompassing, the wide view, and an emphasis on the value of cooperation rather than competition for the proliferation of species, and wonders if twentieth century history would have turned out better if Wallace’s version would have prevailed over Darwin’s.

In Here on Earth Flannery also takes a shot at Richard Dawkins, laying out the flaws in the theory of ‘selfish’ genes (Dawkins being, among other things, and ironically, a sucker for literalism over metaphor) which also prioritises competition over cooperation. Dawkins’ suspicion of anything religious extends to criticism of the ‘New Age’-y concept of Gaia (a term suggested to James Lovelock by William Golding, a writer who was particularly perspicuous about the dangers of survival-of-the-fittest), but Flannery’s writing is influenced by Wallace and Lovelock’s sense of the interconnectedness of nature, rather than simply its competitive aspects, and one doesn’t have to subscribe to the more exaggerated language of the Gaia hypothesis – the concept of Earth as one giant organism – to appreciate the value of thinking this way. Flannery criticises the Christian approach, epitomised by George Pell and others, that environmentalism is paganism, but there are other streams within Christianity that emphasise care of the Earth, and Flannery suggests, contrary to Dawkins, that a more religious perspective on harmony in the natural world might be reasonable and helpful.

Back to Life: this interconnectedness means Flannery is thinking about what this all means for our current crises, one of which is the degradation of the ocean, and one of the many interesting and pointed pieces in Life is his review of a book on jellyfish, creatures that in an aquarium may look intoxicatingly like a lava lamp, but which are benefitting from what we are doing to the oceans to our peril (not to mention the peril of other sea life). They benefit from all that extra carbon, as well as contributing disproportionately to its increase (an example of those negative feedback loops), pushing out other species and clogging up human infrastructure (pumps in power stations and ships). And some jellyfish, he notes, are almost indestructible, regenerating when you chop them to bits (leading him to quip, ‘Sting, where is thy death?’).

The natural world is not able to be disentangled from human history. A number of his previous books – The Eternal Frontier, The Future Eaters, Europe – deal with the extinction of megafauna brought on by human beings. In a piece on Sydney and its harbour, which, intriguingly, describes how ripples in Sydney sandstone hold clues to the lay of the land millions of years ago, he notes the paucity of the soils around the harbour and the variability of piscine abundance, which plagued both aboriginal and English inhabitants. (The indigenous population sensibly decamped over winter.) He also notes the colonists’ blockheadedness about working with the land. Melbourne is not spared, either. Where the Yarra flows was originally a rich, wooded and wildflowered plain, that sustained an unusually dense aboriginal population, but Flannery says Melbourne was planned with complete indifference to the topography, the once-pristine Yarra and the beautiful coloured coastal cliffs and gullies of Beaumaris were used as dumps and the bounteous flora was paved and built over indiscriminately. Similarly, Flannery writes about the wonders of old-growth Tasmanian rainforests and the desire to cut them down. Such doom-and-gloom is mixed with his delight over the natural world, as, inevitably, it must, in these ecologically dark days.

*A bit more editorial diligence would have been good – in the chapters reproduced from earlier books, the phrase ‘this book’ occurs frequently, but of course ‘this book’ means the original book the chapter was lifted from, not Life, a (slight) confusion that could have been easily rectified.


Drawing at his kitchen table

Womerah Lane, Tom Carment, Giramondo.

Painter Tom Carment lives in Darlinghurst, in an area typical of inner suburban Sydney, a narrow street of two-storey terraces where the residents are in close quarters, old sandstone walls flank footpaths, jacarandas flamboyantly decorate the skyline, bougainvilleas spill over fences. Carment describes the area, where he has lived for decades, as formerly seedy, now somewhat gentrified (Bill Granger’s café is on the corner, I note) but retaining a sense of community. He describes the neighbours’ kids drawing at his kitchen table, neighbours borrowing his ladder, neighbours bringing in his washing when those sudden Sydney storms threaten.

His lovely book of autobiographical essays sprinkled appropriately with examples of his art documents in words and pictures his neighbourhood, and spirals outwards to his excursions to Sydney’s beaches and bush, and longer trips to the Outback. He is a plein air painter – it’s ‘about all I do,’ he says humbly – and with his artist’s eye he notices what the newcomer sees and the resident becomes oblivious to, as well as the little things locals know about but newer arrivals need to fossick out. His illustrations are dappled, impressionistic, pleasantly loose, but with a surety of composition, proportion and perspective. They are not showy, or pristine or sublime, but, rather, show a somewhat Australian acceptance – love, even – of a level of roughness and quirkiness, as well as conveying the brightness of our Australian light. In the streets of Sydney he is attracted to power poles and old walls revealed by demolitions. I particularly like how, when commissioned to add to a collection of artworks commemorating the building of the Sydney Opera House, Carment decides to paint just the steps, with lingering tourists, instead of the grandeur of the sails.

His writing, similarly, shows a light touch and a familiarity, but with an inquisitive nature, punctuated by a little joke or odd reference. He writes about his still life painting, particular familiar trees in the Sydney streets, as well as visits to remote places, where he paints trees and windmills and fences. As well as his ramblings through the landscape, the book is a ‘geography of people’. Landscapes are never abstracted from people. He remembers novelist Gillian Mears in Grafton and Brett Whiteley at Lavender Bay, full of energy. (Whiteley is encouraging but describes Carment’s style as ‘a bit toothbrushy’.) He helps clean out photographer Olive Cotton’s studio in Cowra.

He writes about Albert Namatjira, who was something of an inspiration for Carment’s plein air painting. He recalls liking Namatjira’s art despite the sniffy criticism it received for supposedly being merely ‘illustrative’, neither modern art nor ‘authentic’ desert art. (Although desert art/dot painting was a triumph, it did create expectations of what Indigenous art was supposed to look like, a prejudice that has sometimes hampered Indigenous artists since, especially those not from the Outback.) As an artist well-versed in art history and knowledgeable about technique, as well as a fellow watercolourist, Carment can describe exactly what’s happening in Namatjira’s art. Namatjira had a deceptively exquisite handling of the medium, conveying his appreciative sense of place. Carment turns a similar sharp eye and warm heart to his landscapes and streetscapes.

Clive James: 1939-2019

Clive James, who died this week, is being celebrated for his humour and writing, and his genius was in his ability to mix high and low; indeed, in a very Australian egalitarian way, to discuss works on their merit rather than according to prejudices and hierarchies about what art should be, and to see interest and, yes, humour, wherever he looked.

I came to Clive James late, as his TV career was winding down. I became interested in his books of reviews, and hunted them out in dusty bookshops, getting my hands on as many as I could. There are demarcations in his writing between the poetry, the serious criticism and the journalism, but he could write about anything cultural, and in his writings tennis players, pop singers, actors and motor racing drivers rub shoulders with opera singers, painters and medieval poets. He could find humour in high art and could take popular TV seriously. Well, he wrote about the latter in furiously funny fashion, but it wasn’t beneath him, as it might have been for other Oxbridge graduates.

Of course, Japanese game shows and Dante are not the same, and James’ first love was poetry, for which he primarily wanted to be remembered (but for which he probably won’t). He was educated at a time when poetry had more prominence than it has now, when it was as popular as TV. But poetry is where the craft of writing most dazzles, and poetry or prose, James was a master stylist. The humour just made it seem all the more effortless.

As he got older, a lecturing tone crept in, as he took on the role of old man of letters. He had strong opinions (including his rejection of religion, despite, we might note, his love of Dante). He had quite the ego, as noted by both himself and those around him. He once said that in show business you can’t be modest about your level of talent because there are too many people ready to agree with you. The ego wasn’t precluded by the fact that he could laugh at himself. It’s just that he found many things funny.

You can see evidence of both ego and self-deprecation in the book May Week was in June, a continuation of his memoirs. He describes his lack of focus, except for non-essential tasks, like writing poems about ducks who, somehow, have annoyed him, but he then muscled in on the role of poetry editor at Granta so he didn’t have to put up with editors not as talented as he was.

In a review of Philip Larkin’s jazz criticism, James noted Larkin’s rejection of the pretension of John Coltrane. Larkin thought that modern art went badly when it intellectualised or mystified. I think Larkin was something of an inspiration for James. Larkin was poet and critic, and he felt that art was for human beings to ‘enjoy’ and ‘endure’. I read the passage discussing this in one of James’ collections of reviews, which I grabbed randomly off the shelf and was flicking through after I heard he died. Often James wrote about the philosophy of art, if I can call it that, but without sacrificing lucidity, or humour and enjoyment, and because of this his frighteningly expansive intellect gets under the radar. And perhaps so it should. Truly great writers explain the complicated well and draw you in. Second-rate writers boost their egos by making things more complicated or by being unnecessarily negative.

James’s writing bubbles with enthusiasm. While he could be just as funny in his destruction of art he thought second-rate, he was one of those critics who wants to send you back to read or listen to the works he loves. There is a sunniness to his writing, a post-war optimism, thrown into more relief by the shadows of the wars and the loss of his father, and boosted by fond remembrance, possibly exaggerated by nostalgia, of his childhood in Sydney, where its harbour shone like, as he once put it, crushed diamonds. When he did fly home, he would sit at Circular Quay and enjoy white wine and the crushed diamonds, and when he no longer could fly home, it grew better in the memory. Sometimes his long-distance national pride was skewed – he praised John Howard’s prime ministership without perhaps understanding how the nation had shifted and how many non-white Australians felt alienated by Howard’s love of the good old days. But I think James owed some of his success to the unpretentious, easy-going Australia he grew up in (even if he was quick to get out of Australia, famously, and resided permanently in the UK).

Seeing him as a larrikin perhaps hides the fact that he was in love with language (and not just English – he taught himself multiple languages, partly by reading favourite books in their original languages), captured by, voracious for, writing and its potential. Even the TV criticism, while we might only dimly remember the characters he is discussing, astounds with its literary richness. James finished May Week was in June by cunningly combining the (false) modesty and ego in the sentence, ‘All I can do is turn a phrase until it catches the light’. Like crushed diamonds.


The World Was Whole, Fiona Wright, Giramondo

Often we don’t know what goes on inside homes and inside people. In The World Was Whole, a series of essays that become a kind of memoir (and that follow on from previous essay collection Small Acts of Disappearance), we are privy to the domestic and mental interiors of Fiona Wright, who from outside may seem a successful inner city type, an assured and talented, sometimes even feisty and formidable, writer and teacher, but who is also at times lonely and fragile, and debilitated by illness.

Some years ago Wright developed a chronic reaction to certain foods, which led to a form of anorexia. Unable to keep food down, her avoiding proper meals altogether seems like an understandable strategy. But it of course knocks her around physically and mentally, wears her down slowly, and complicates her relationships. Such is her story that a reader might be moved to simply wanting to give her a hug.

There is contrast between her hospitalisations, collapses, tears, tiredness and frustration and her confident and wise writing. She is often eloquent where anger would be more understandable, although there are also the odd despairing outbursts. Her writing is of course a form of therapy, a therapy that benefits us as well. The fact that the audience is remote probably helps with the flow and flowering of the writing.

It is not a miserable book. She writes well about joy, even when, she says, it is difficult for writers to write about joy. (Angry is easier.) The simple pleasures of warming sunshine and dogs chasing balls are heightened by the stretches of anxiety and distress in-between.

The book also chronicles some development in her understanding of her illness – what it is to live long term with illness, how it is not a withdrawal from living but a form of living. She writes that the metaphor of fighting illness can have unintended implications, and she cautions that our bodies are not necessarily battlefields, and having to live with illness is not necessarily defeat or surrender.

This is not to say that her illness is always the centre of her often beautiful narrative, even if it gnaws at each narrative she unfurls. The book is, amongst other things, also an attempt to understand the meaning of home, especially when one is without a partner or children, or one permanent dwelling. In her recounting of visits to cafes, galleries, bars and parks in inner suburban Sydney, she lets us in on the little interconnections that make up a sense of home. She notes that the circumference of home, what feels familiar to us, is usually quite small. In China, where she finds it hard to understand the basic assumptions underpinning a foreign society, but is relentlessly observant of the little routines that make up a neighbourhood, she realizes that home often simply means knowing the rules.

She writes lovingly about the sadness of leaving houses and housemates and is angry about how the fluid nature of modern work leads to instability in housing and relationships. In her case this is all compounded by her illness, but this throws into greater relief the moments of community and the small, random acts of kindness that bring her often to tears.

The book is not intended to be didactic, but it might help us look twice at those around us, beyond the facades of completeness we often wear, and prompt us to our own acts of kindness and seizures of the small moments of joy.

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.

Out of the water

The House, Helen Pitt, Allen & Unwin

The Sydney Opera House is such a widely recognised building, and such a part of Australian consciousness, that it is easy to forget that it very nearly didn’t get built. Like the Great Pyramid, it is an iconic building that was also seemingly cursed. Such a radical but now beloved design took some getting used to, and caused much head-scratching from designers and builders, and angst from public and politicians.

Helen Pitt’s book, which must have necessitated much research and grappling with the particulars of the building process, begins with the story of architect Jorn Utzon in his modernist house among the birches in Denmark, learning from a Sydney Morning Herald reporter on the phone that he had won the design competition – appropriately, as it is Utzon’s vision that makes the Opera House what it is. But credit also goes to the two contrasting men who collaborated on its beginnings, the flamboyant British conductor of the ABC Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, who was eventually disgraced by a sex scandal, and the down-to-earth Labor premier Joe Cahill, who died unexpectedly in the first year of construction. Although not an opera lover, Cahill saw the importance of a world class venue for all Sydneysiders. Goossens convinced Cahill to shift plans for an international shipping terminal to the west side of Circular Quay, thereby freeing up Bennelong Point and making the Opera House the focal point of the harbour.

Famously, at the culmination of the design competition in 1957, when nothing seemed to stand out and the judges were disappointed at the mundane proposals that focused on internals rather than externals, internationally lauded modernist architect Eero Saarinen pulled Utzon’s design from the pile of rejects, exclaiming dramatically, ‘Gentlemen, here is your Opera House.’ Although less detailed than others, Utzon’s visionary, soaring design caught Saarinen’s eye.

To say that the choice was controversial is an understatement. Even Frank Lloyd Wright derided it as a ‘circus tent’. Other verdicts included ‘hideous’, a deflated parachute and ‘a mess’. But there was also sympathy for Utzon’s view that a venue for opera needn’t be in an Old World style, even if the parabolic arches that supported the white sails subtly referenced Gothic cathedrals.

Utzon himself epitomised the modern, Scandinavian style, and he and his family were feted when they arrived in Sydney. Utzon learnt his trade when Scandinavians were swapping heavy, traditional designs for elegant, minimalist, modernist housing and furniture. His father was a boat builder, responsible for a lauded, sleek sailboat design, and he advised young Jorn to pay close attention to nature for inspiration. These two influences can be seen in the profile of the Opera House’s curving rooflines, which are often compared to sails, shells or gull wings, but can just as easily be seen as upturned boat prows, another maritime allusion in a building that makes the most of its waterfront setting.

The visualisation was elegant but the process of building was torturous. Utzon eventually realised, after stacking scale model parts inside each other, that sections of a sphere cut into triangles could be used repeatedly to make all the shapes of the sails, cutting down on the maths. Even so, the engineers needed to use what was Australia’s biggest computer at the time, at the Woomera missile facility in South Australia, to double-check thousands of engineering calculations. The thousands of hours spent on the engineering nearly bankrupted engineer Ove Arup’s company, and Arup himself fell ill from the stress.

Foundations had to be dynamited and rebuilt stronger. The site employed the world’s biggest cranes, and the builders also had to invent one to hoist the ribs of the sails into place. There were innovations in the manufacture of the sail skins, and in the process of gluing on the tiles.

Famously, the complexity and uniqueness of the building blew the budget out of the water. Utzon denied responsibility and blamed penny-pinching politicians. As the years rolled on and the project’s reputation soured, a change to a Liberal government brought a new planning minister, Davis Hughes, who saw himself as a Mr Fix It, and he immediately clashed with Utzon, leading eventually to Utzon’s resignation and return to Denmark. Australian architect Peter Hall was brought in to finish the job, but he too seemed to succumb to the curse on the building, suffering from overwork, and in later years even spending some time as a homeless alcoholic. Utzon never visited the completed Opera House, though he was not bitter, taking the long-term view that it would be a fitting tribute to the vision of Sydneysiders, and that one day it would be a proud ruin, like the Mayan temples that had inspired Utzon’s design for the Opera House’s podium.

Others had more pessimistic, short-term plans. As delays dragged on and on there was talk of knocking the half-completed thing down or leaving it incomplete as a kind of outdoor concert venue. Eventually the interiors were attempted, but opera was relegated to the smaller performance space, making ‘Sydney Opera House’ something of a misnomer, but the name stuck, despite floated alternatives. To this day the interiors, and especially their acoustics, divide opinion and illustrate the architectural difficulties, especially in a prominent public building, in managing the push and pull of interior and exterior.

But the Opera House’s main users are those who view it from outside. The House is a giant sculpture and the internal spaces are secondary considerations, unlike the utilitarian Harbour Bridge but like New York’s Guggenheim Museum, which is a terrible building to hang artwork in, as the floors are not level, but which was envisaged by Frank Lloyd Wright as a giant artwork itself. Similarly, the Opera House’s contribution to art is not in what it houses, but in what it projects to the world.

Aesthete, athlete, ascetic

Coach Fitz, Tom Lee, Giramondo Publishing.

Tom, the narrator of novel Coach Fitz, is a young man living in Sydney whose obsession with physical fitness in part makes up for feelings of inadequacy lingering from his youth. He is intelligent, self-reflective, at times too much, to the point of self-absorption, and independent, to the point of isolation. He hires a fitness and running coach, a former psychoanalyst, aptly named Coach Fitz, as she is both physically fit and also a good ‘fit’ for Tom, sharing his interest in self-improvement beyond just physical fitness, and in architecture, design, food and wine.

Although something of a foodie – another thread in his pursuit of living well – an aesthete as well as athlete, he is also an ascetic. In order to afford his fitness coaching he lives out of his car, a Honda Odyssey. Again, the name is not incidental, as, like Odysseus, Tom is on a quest, in his case for enlightenment through fitness.

His runs with Coach Fitz are tours of Sydney’s northern beaches and the suburbs around Botany Bay, and this allows author Tom Lee to indulge in his interest in the urban landscape. (Parts of the novel mirror Lee’s exploration of Sydney’s suburbs in an article recently published online in the Sydney Review of Books.) As they run, Coach Fitz takes a holistic approach, counselling Tom about the problems with modern young men and their prolonging of adolescence emotionally and sexually, and about the culture of alcohol and gambling affixed like a leech to Australian sport. She also alerts him to favourite architects, architectural features, such as the cast-iron fittings on hotels, and the aesthetic appeal of particular public amenities. They discuss changes in topography and flora, and the attributes of parks and reserves. She encourages the immersion in landscape, rather than the ‘self-insulation’ of running with earbuds connected to electronic devices.

But Tom begins to notice inconsistencies. Coach Fitz is obsessed with her phone, her restaurant choices are dubious, and she is something of a hypochondriac. Eventually a sexual near-miss with the drunken coach causes him to sever ties, but his interest in running only grows, and he feels the need to take on a pupil of his own. In this there is the notion of the pupil surpassing the master.

Running seems like a purely physical act, but of course it is also mental and emotional, and the impressive style of writing in this novel mimics the discipline but also philosophical introspection of self-improvement. Like the work of some European novelists and the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, it is deliberately formal and reflective, carefully clear but also verbose to the point of pedantry or even neurosis. It constantly shifts between the descriptive and the overly wordy, giving it a slyly comic edge. Coach Fitz’s tendency to choose the cafes they meet in is a ‘lopsided distribution of agency that informed our decisions about places of recreation’. After living in his car for some months Tom begins ‘to hanker for an increased quantity of flat surfaces […] and immobile foundations’.

There lives within Tom both the sportsman and the nerd. Tom admits an occasional ‘obliviousness to the distinction between what was and wasn’t appropriate in making social connections’. His narration conveys lucidity and sense, even if it is a little pedantic, but between the lines seeps the idea that others might think Tom a little odd. (Lee’s skill as a novelist is to make this largely implicit rather than explicit.) He is oblivious to the fact that reading his protégé’s diary that gets left behind in a café, in order to gain some insight and encouragement, might be an invasion of privacy. And in Tom’s interactions with people there is an anxiety and over-analysis that perhaps mirrors his obsession with exercise. Yet obsession is not quite the right word. He simply thinks about exercise a lot, and the novel is cleverly subtle in that it continually moves in a blurry field in-between interest and obsession.

One thread in the novel is Tom’s interest in restaurant reviews, which is woven into the overall pattern of improving himself. We live in a society keen on analysis. For Tom, most times, reading the review is enough. Although he plans to visit some of the restaurants, the possibility of visiting is enough, perhaps in the way that reading book reviews can be enjoyable even if one doesn’t read the book in question. We need to be in the know, aware of what is good or bad, or at least fashionable. To know is to participate in some way in the culture of self-improvement where improving one’s taste is part of it.

Writing about the origins of the novel, Lee says that he is not being wholly critical of Sydney’s craze for fitness. It would be too easy, in the manner of cynical culture critics, to dismiss it outright. Rather, the novel is an ‘expression of reverence’ for fitness, even if Lee shows a subtle understanding of how reverence can include doubt. ‘Reverence’ is a deliberately religious word, and physical exercise can be at the level of religious devotion, with its community of believers, rituals, feelings of transcendence and attempts to live consistently well. There is something joyous and spiritually rewarding about exercising, but like the cultivation of mind and spirit there is a danger that it can turn inward, encourage self-obsession, and become the arbiter of self-worth.

(Originally reviewed for Insights magazine.)