Sydney preoccupies my thoughts of late.
Partly, I suppose because I’ve (yet again) been contemplating running away to The States. America has always called me, but I think that’s a simple case of too many cinematic images as a child. They get imprinted across your heart and mind, don’t they, until they feel like home.
I’ve noticed that my American blues can be cured by a train ride to the City (and a Doris Day movie at the Dendy!). Standing outside the austere MCA on a winter’s night and looking across to the Opera sails, or taking the walk home from Sydney Writers’ Festival and curving around the Park Hyatt, watching as the city lights drop into the harbour like spilled paint. I’ve seen it a million times but each time I round the corner, it’s like I’m seeing it for the first time. And somewhere in the distance Judy Garland taps her ruby slippers, and a girl knows she is exactly where she is meant to be.
For the longest time I hated Sydney.
It’s always been like a good looking man to me and I don’t particularly care for them. All style and no substance. Bugger that. I’ve always preferred the odd looking chap with the book and record collection and a sharp one liner.
Hence my love for Melbourne, which is plain and flat and a little rough around the edges, but boy do I love talking to it. And in contemplating leaving Sydney, I think I’ve come to realise just how deeply I love my hometown.
Don’t get me wrong, I loathe it’s self-consciousness, it’s deep concern with the shallows, it’s loud tartiness. I hate that the City is insatiable and doesn’t give a shit. That all is chases is the blessed buck. Sometimes the City shouts at me and I want to scream back ‘shut the fuck up’. I know the unofficial emblem of the city is the frangipani and I’m sure I don’t I want to change that, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the myna bird might be more appropriate. A screechy show-off, tribal, territorial and not originally from here.
I’ve been reading Ruth Park’s beautiful guide to Sydney of late, and one of these days I am going to keep my promise to myself and go walk Ruth’s Streets (and perhaps look for Twelve-and-a-half Plymouth Street and see if somehow, Roie and Dolour are still sitting on the steps of the cranky brown house). If you aren’t familiar with Ruth’s Sydney – well off you go, I can wait for you to pop into your local bookstore.
The now defunct Duffy & Snellgrove revised and reissued the book in 1999, with the pale jade and stormy mauve photo of Fort Denison on the cover.
“Here we stand then, civilly on the doorstep. That Circular Quay is Sydney’s doorstep no one can deny. At our back is one of the world’s largest and finest ports, beautiful as a dream, laid upon the map like a branch of blue coral. Before us, croaking and huffing and squealing like some fabulous toad is the city, explosive in growth. Sydney is built on a landscape littered with human bones. Indeed it might never have been born at all if England hadn’t been in a pickle after the American War of Independence, finding herself without a penal destination for her stirrers and scallywags, forgers and pickpockets. Thus was the village founded, the first convict settlement in the South Seas, daughter of the American Revolution, the most distant, loneliest and saddest place on earth. Or so it was planned to be. But Sydney turned out quite otherwise. Blithe, irresponsible, slightly mad, she has air full of electric sparks, her birds shout in boys’ voices, the sunshine is here more often and lasts longer. And even then the bushfire lights her domestic facades as though for some hellish son et lumiere, you feel it’s right, characteristic somehow, Sydney.”
Ruth Park, The Companion Guide to Sydney, 1973
Stirrers and scallywags, isn’t that just glorious? And how about Sydney as the croaking squealing toad? Oh, I do love a girl who uses the word ‘pickle’.
And if you know about Ruth’s Sydney, then you probably know about Delia Falconer’s Sydney, which is just as sublime. Delia’s lovely book was my Christmas present the year before last, and I’ve been putting off reading it because I wanted to finish Ruth’s first. I need not have bothered, they are quite different books, although both sing from each author’s heart about Sydney.
“True to this spirit, I love and hate the place at once. But on nights like the summer evening earlier this year when I walked home through a limpid dusk, all is forgiven – its brutishness, its piggish bus drivers, its violent moods. As I set out from the city’s southern end, the sandstone walls beneath the Central railway line still held the day’s heat. The neon sign above Wentworth Avenue had gone from Sharpie’s golf house, but I remembered the little golfer who used to guide his golden chip-shot, endlessly, towards the nineteenth hole. In Darlinghurst I passed a row of old terraces where feral banana trees had colonised the tiny courtyards behind them, and walked on, past the smell of Thai food, up dirty William Street. Outside my flat the flying foxes were landing in the Moreton Bay fig, and already their squabbles had sent a thick fall of fruit onto the pavement, which smelled phlegmy and sweet in the dew. The moon rose from the invisible harbour into a sky of such a deep royal blue it was almost hard to believe in. The street smelled of low tide. For all its beauty, the city could return in an instant to pulp. And that thought was strangely cheering.”
Delia Falconer, Sydney, 2010
I’ve never really understood the what and why these Sydney stories speak to in me and how deeply I carry them. I suppose that’s the power of literature, those lovely sentences and moments that eventually become part of your own story. Or maybe it’s just that I think about it too much. I do know that growing up in the Anglo Saxon northern suburbs in the early eighties, I never recognised myself or my surroundings in the stories I was forced to study. And while I’ll never forget finally making it to England and walking the Yorkshire Moors and hearing Catherine’s name on the wind, what meant more to me was finally seeing my own city on the written page. Ruth Park was the first person who gave me that.
At the moment the NSW Art Gallery are running a series of lectures on Sydney. They are given by Delia Falconer. And it was in Dr Falconer’s lecture hall last Saturday morning, as the wind howled around the sandstone gallery, that I realised what it was that appealed to me. It’s not just a literal home I’ve been looking for amongst the lines and the pages. It’s the metaphorical home, that place of belonging. In other words, myself. It might be narcisstic, but it’s the stories that reflect different parts of me, that give me some sense of permanence and belonging, that whisper in my ear there are other people just like me. This is what I long and look for, in other people’s writing, and I guess, ultimately in my own.