Under the bridge
Delia Falconer’s ‘Sydney’
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Returning to Sydney can be an ambivalent experience. And it was for me, this winter, after three months in London. Ducks were swimming on Snails Bay, near where I live in Balmain, and the wattle was out in the newly planted Ballast Point Park. The winter light was clear and bright, the sheen of the harbour was disturbed only by skiffs and ferries. How could anyone not be pleased to be back? And yet. On Darling Street the cafes were overflowing, the 4WDs were soaking up the sun, and everyone seemed (like me, when I’m here) to have just that bit too much fat under the skin. It was the end of July, a child was missing in Western Sydney, and beneath the slogans of the candidates, election talk was of political assassination and the sinister powers of backroom men.
It was a more troubling return than usual because, actually, when it comes right down to it, I’m not at all sure I like the city I’ve lived in for the better part of 40 years.
This would be of no surprise to Delia Falconer. She puts ambivalence at the centre of her Sydney (304pp; $29.95), the third in NewSouth Books’ successful series on Australian cities. “We are the most dialectical of cities, a place of wrestling and opposite forces,” she writes. Sydney is a city “under the spell of natural beauty” yet “addicted to the ugly”. Or, more poetically, it’s a place where everything seems to have “an extra layer of reflection, of slip beneath the surface”.
Sydney opens with an epigraph from Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Five Bells’, a poem first published in 1939. It remains unchallenged as the great poem of Sydney, Falconer says, because “it puts its finger on the gut sense felt by anyone who has spent some time in this city that there is a kind of troubled sadness within the beauty of the harbour.” In Slessor’s poem, the elegiac tone is for his friend Joe Lynch whose bones still lie beneath the water. But it remains an inspiration to artists and writers because it “summons up the epic, chthonic presence that seems to run far beneath the city itself”.
Falconer doubts that Slessor had the Eora in mind when he was writing of the unanchored quality of his city. Seventy years later, it is impossible not to track this central disturbance back to the earliest days of the colony, and the dispossession that was the foundation both of the city and, she argues, of its sensibility. “Ghosting”, she calls the first of her five thematic chapters. She suggests one of the reasons we now love Lieutenant William Dawes, who arrived on the First Fleet, is because he is a rare example of someone who let the place call to him in its own language. The glimpse we get from his books on Indigenous language – the significance of which was not discovered until 1972 by Australian linguists, itself a comment on the silencing and forgetting that still bedevils us – are heartbreakingly vivid: “The softness of night can be felt everywhere inside them.” The tables of nouns and verbs “drift away” to record “more complicated transactions” taught to Dawes by a young woman, Patyegarang: “My friend, let us (two) go and bathe”; “Take hold of my hand and help me up”. And then there are the young Eora women Watkin Tench saw bodysurf across the harbour on a bark. So vivid, and so thoroughly gone. For Falconer, these ghostly absences, “fragile and tenacious”, help account for “our tendency to overburden the landscape” in the expectation that “it can somehow stand in for the enormity of what has been lost”.
Read the acknowledgements to Sydney – 34 pages of work by historians, novelists, poets, biographers, artists, photographers, architects, film-makers, anthropologists, geologists and linguists (and that’s not a full list) – and it’s hard to credit the forgetting that Falconer keeps at the centre of her vision. And yet anyone who has stood on the cliffs at Watsons Bay, if they’re not contemplating throwing themselves over the Gap, will know how easily the thought intrudes: What would it have been like to have first sailed in through those Heads? Or to have stood on that cliff watching the arrival of these strange intruders? And they’ll know how fast the thought skitters away as they turn towards the shining towers of the city in the distance, and recall the fish cafes and beer gardens down on the bay below. All too easily that flickering thought on the cliff becomes a frisson in the pleasures of a Sydney afternoon.
It’s this kind of slippage, with its concealments and contradictions, that Falconer doesn’t let us dodge as she takes on the mighty task of getting under the reflective surface of a glitzy city, and at the same time getting on top of all that those 34 pages represent. It must have been a tough commission to create a synthesis that is also a new view, and still meet the brief of this series – which is, as I understand it, to capture the spirit of a city. Not another potted history. Not another guidebook.
At a certain point in the writing, Falconer says, “a force” she’d been resisting swept in. It was her “violent love” for her city, “as irrational as its geographic assertions”, and it is this that propels her across Sydney’s weighty foundations: her “love for its mix of tolerance and dirt, its sunshine with an undertow, its pride in its own darkness. And of course it is tied up, as everyone’s version of their city must be, with nostalgia for my youth.”
Falconer grew up in the city’s “romantic period, in the late sixties and seventies, squeezed between its faded golden age and destruction”. Born in 1966, she spent her early years in a flat at McMahons Point, “listening to the gasps and plunging screams of the passengers of the Big Dipper” at Luna Park. The harbour was literally at her feet, but her formative years were less about a Brett Whiteley view from a balcony than about the rotting finger wharves of Woolloomooloo and the working inner harbour of boatyards, factories and warehouses, “already on the verge of desolation”. Her father took her to the printeries he visited at the southern end of The Rocks “where the Shangri-La Hotel now stands”. She sat on cushions to eat with her parents at restaurants in town: “grilled gemfish at Flanagan’s or schnitzel at a Hungarian restaurant with a sinister gypsy violinist”. But already “the remnants” of Sydney’s “cosmopolitan ambitions”, such as Rowe Street and The Trocadero, were vanishing.
From McMahons Point, Falconer’s parents moved to the suburbs – Roseville Chase, about which there was “nothing romantic” and no history. “Or so it appeared.” Away from the harbour, the young Delia felt herself “marooned” by the strange “force of forgetting” that lay over the suburbs like the heat of the summer. For her, it is the city, the “wilder town, with its mix of deco primness and indiscipline, just intact in my childhood, which will always be my Sydney”.
So how does she deal with the insistent fact of the suburbs when there is so strong a centripetal pull back to the centre? Think Sydney and you think the harbour. Fly in to Botany Bay and you see the spread of suburbs west to the mountains, north and south along the coast almost to Newcastle and Wollongong. “How do you find a way of capturing all the things that go on in our suburbs – their passions and pleasures, their terrors and forgetting?” she asks. She turns to the Patrick White of Dogwoods, who found some kind of spiritual reckoning from a fall in the mud, and wrote The Tree of Man, that savage hymn to the plain lives on the semi-rural landscapes that represented “the very things Sydney was ashamed of, in its rush to make the suburbs modern and like other, more sophisticated places”.
Falconer doesn’t achieve an equivalent fall in the mud, but she does, of course, find that even Roseville Chase has a history. It’s Sydney’s dogged forgetting, she says, “an act of will”, that has emptied out the bush and stripped its suburbs of history. Even so, Sydney is nowhere near as sure-footed on the suburbs as it is on the city. It’s there that we feel Falconer’s beating heart, the “force” that swept into the writing. It’s there in the city of her parents’ era, and her childhood. It’s there in her nostalgia for the still-industrial inner city of her student years. She’s terrific on that, and anyone who was lucky enough to know the inner city while it was still cheap will understand what she means when she says the pleasure of the squalor and decay “was a means of not mooning and thrilling over the deep shade of gums in the cemetery of the old Newtown church; at the yellow flowers on the paperbarks, at the soft industrial dusks over the water at Glebe Point – all of which we had, quite miraculously, to ourselves”.
Reading Sydney is a roller-coaster ride, and I mean this as a compliment. Its prism of contradiction and paradox, its thematic arrangement of chapters, its dipping and weaving narratives, capture the spirit of the Big Dipper that was an accompaniment to Falconer’s earliest years. The lyrical quality of her prose – which ran perilously close to overwrought in The Service of Clouds – suits the dappled and saturated light of Sydney. Its slightly fecund aspect, as in Christina Stead’s For Love Alone, suits the moist and moody heat of Sydney summers, the ibis picking in the rubbish bins, the eroticism that takes “pride in its own darkness”.
It may be that Sydney is a city best suited to the young, who can give themselves over to its languid pleasures. Back in the 1970s, when I was doing just that, I remember Eleanor Dark – then in her seventies – saying that she rarely came into the city anymore, for she couldn’t bear what had been done to it. Her Sydney was the city of Waterway, her 1938 novel, and she’d seen too much of it disappear under the wrecker’s ball. Her melancholy fury and withdrawal is a response I’ve come to understand all too well, having lived through my own years of Sydney’s wave-like pattern of renewal and forgetting – which is a polite way of describing its lust for destruction that no amount of heritage colours can compensate for. Juanita Nielsen, the activist of my era who refused to let developers buy her two-up, two-down terrace at 202 Victoria Street, Kings Cross, is another ghost who stalks Sydney in “an archetypal story of Sydney’s greedy dark side”. Falconer’s father was convinced Nielsen was buried in the foundations of the street’s “Lego” apartments. Twenty years younger than me, Falconer’s fury and lament is for the next wave of “renewal”, “the march to destruction” that came in the 1980s with the bull market, the floating dollar, the “great corporate re-development of a city”.
“Surely,” she writes, “no other city’s pleasures are so bound up with revulsion, or their beauty so dependent on the knowledge of corruption.”
In the current dispute over the stretch of inner harbour that was called “The Hungry Mile” by the men who waited there for work during the Depression, the state government has refused to retain the name, opting instead for “Barangaroo”. It’s one of those dark and ironic resurfacings that Sydney is so good at, for Barangaroo, a Cadigal woman and the first wife of Bennelong, “opposed his closeness to the colonists”, is now to be remembered – or forgotten – by a disputed development overlooking her harbour.
Somehow, through it all, you feel Falconer’s enduring love for the city. It’s a passionate, ambivalent love, streaked through with despair and fury, but a love nonetheless. It’s the energy of this ambivalent love, the force she let into the book, that makes Sydney far and away her best work.