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"This is a hymn of praise to Sydneyand to its people. A little book, but an incredibly rich one." —Scotland on Sunday (UK)
"It is a vintage performance. He makes you want to get on the next Qantas flight out of Heathrow." —Evening Standard (UK)
"The writer in him gets truly hooked, and so does the reader … a book of fierce color and shape." —New York Times
I DESPAIR OF BEING able to convey to any readermy own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour,wrote Anthony Trollope. I have seen nothingequal to it in the way of landlocked scenery, — nothing,second to it. Dublin Bay, the Bay ofSpezia, New York and the Cove of Cork are allpicturesquely fine. Bantry Bay, with the nooks ofthe sea running up to Glengarrif, is very lovely.But they are not the equal of Sydney either inshape, in colour, or in variety. I have never seenNaples, or Rio Janeiro, or Lisbon; — but from thedescription and pictures I am led to think thatnone of them can possess such a world of lovelinessof water as lies within Sydney Heads.
I could not see the harbour from the aisle seatof the Boeing 747 that brought me home fromNew York and I squirmed and craned just likemy broad-shouldered companions from Connecticut,each dressed in spectacular outfits tailoredfrom the stars and stripes. Members of a martial-artsteam, they were so aflame about this journey,had been loudly excited since we left LA thirteenhours before, that they had tested the powers ofmy Temazepam to the limits. It had taken two15mg capsules and four glasses of red winebefore I could finally sleep. Our conversationshad been brief. I knew only that they wished towin some medals in Sydney. They knew that Ilived in New York City. I am sure they had noidea that I was an Australian trying to get aglimpse of home.
Home? I did not come to live in Sydney until Iwas almost forty and even then I carried in mybaggage a typical Melbournian distrust of thatvulgar crooked convict town. I rented aleakingramshackle semi in Balmain because I knew thateven if my mother was correct, even if Sydneywas just like Liberace, I could never be sorry towake in the morning and look out on that harbour.This was in Wharf Road, Balmain, betweenStannard's shipyard and the Caltex terminal.Balmain was an old working-class suburb withvanilla slices in the bakers' windows, bad restaurants,bleak beer-sour pubs patronised by dockworkers, communists, crims, cops and the oddmythologiser who wistfully described its literarylife to a reporter from Le Monde as `Le Ghetto deBalmain'.
There were writers, yes, but in those yearsBalmain had a working waterfront and at thebottom of my neglected garden I could watch thelow-riding brown work boats, oil tankers, containerships, and smell the fuel oil and watch theflying foxes swooping like Tolkien's Nazguls inthe hot subtropical nights when Margot Hutcheson,who I lived with in those years, slept besideme on a mattress right on the harbour's edge. Theoily iridescent dark throbbed with the sounds ofships' generators.
Now, twenty-seven years later, a resident alien inthe United States, I was making claim on the city2,000 feet below. The video display showed Sydneyonly three miles distant, but the choppy Pacificwas still obscured by low cloud and when wefinally broke through, I didn't know where Iwas. We could not take the perfect flight path Ihad dreamed of, one which would bring mestraight into the familiar mouth of Sydney, betweenthose two high yellow bluffs they call the Heads.
These bright yellow cliffs show the city's DNA— that is, it is a sandstone city, and sandstoneshows everywhere amongst the black and khakibush, in the convict buildings of old Sydney andin the retaining walls of all those steep harboursidestreets. Sydney sandstone has many qualities.It is soft and easily worked (to the convicts asandstone was a man who cried and broke beneaththe lash). It is also highly porous, and thefirst settlers would use it to filter water. When itrains in Sydney, which it does as dramatically as aHong Kong monsoon, the water drains rapidly,leaving a thin dry topsoil from which the nutrientshave long ago been leached. This in turndetermines the unique flora which thrives here.
With nutrients so scarce, Tim Flannery writes,plants can't afford to lose leaves to herbivores. Asa result they defend their foliage with a deadlycocktail of toxins and it's these toxins that givethe bush its distinctive smell — the antisepticaroma of the eucalypts and the pungent scentof the mint bush. When the leaves of such plantsfall to the ground the decomposers in the soiloften find it difficult to digest them, for they areladen with poisons. The dead leaves thus lie onthe rapidly draining sand until a very hot spell.Then, fanned by searing north winds, there is fire.
So the very perfume of the Sydney air is aconsequence of sandstone. It is also sandstonethat dictates the terms of human settlement. For40,000 years Aboriginal hunters and gatherershad known how to eat, to sometimes feast here,but the British who began their creeping invasionin 1788 had no clue of where they were. They setout to farm as they might in Kent or Surrey andthe sandstone nearly killed them for it. Starvation.That is what the yellow cliffs of Sydney spellif you wish to read them. But there is more, muchmore. This modern good-time city of beaches andrestaurants, of sailing boats and boozy Fridaynights, was formed by traumas that it cloaks socasually you might easily miss them. If you comefrom New York City all you may notice is theapparent easiness of life, the lightness, the senseof a population forever on holiday. But there wasa bitter war fought here upon and about thisearth. The Eora tribe, who still thought of Sydneyas their country, were given smallpox and fell likeflies. Convicts were flogged. Convicts raped Eorawomen. Eora men trapped and murdered convicts.Two hundred years later the past continuesto insist itself upon the present in ways that aredazzlingly and almost unbelievably clear.
Of course Captain Cook never recommendedthat anyone settle in Sydney Cove. It was BotanyBay, five miles to the south, that he promoted as aplace of settlement, but Governor Phillip tookone look at Botany Bay and declared it impossible.Within a week he had inspected SydneyHarbour and set his human cargo ashore.
His Excellency, wrote Watkin Tench, seeingthe state these poor objects [the convicts] were in,ordered a piece of ground to be enclosed, for thepurposes of raising vegetables for them. Theseeds that were sown upon this occasion, on firstappearing above ground, looked promising andwell, but soon withered away.
It is more than a little intriguing that some ofthe best vegetable gardens in Sydney can befound today at Botany Bay, and one is temptedto imagine how the city might have formed, howits character would be different, if GovernorPhillip had settled where he had been instructed.
But Botany Bay was abandoned, and, one feelsin looking at it, punished for not being what Cookhad promised. It became the place where everythingand everyone who is not wanted — the dead,mad, criminal, and merely indigenous — could betucked away, safely out of sight. It is the back yard,the back door, the place where human shit isdumped. What better place to site an airport?
On the day I arrived in search of home Iskimmed low across the choppy waters of BotanyBay, and landed with a hard unpleasant bump atKingsford Smith Sydney International Airport.
Customer O'Brien, Customer Figgis. These werethe first words I heard spoken on Australian soil.Customer O'Brien, Customer Figgis, please presentyourselves at the podium inside the terminal.
The formal bureaucratic style jarred my earsand reminded me that I was indeed home, nowucking furries!
Customer O'Brien, approach the podium.
I turned to my companions from Connecticut.They did not know how weird they looked. Nordid they have the least idea of what a strangeplace they were in. Of course they were notoffended by this style of greeting but I wassuddenly awash with irritation more explicablein a teenager coming home from boarding schooland discovering the unsuitability of his family.God damn! Why did we talk to people like this?Customer? What sort of dreary meeting in whatwindowless conference room had produced thishonorific for international travellers? CustomerO'Brien. Customer Kane!
You cannot expect a curious tourist to understandthat this language contains the secrets ofour history, but this was the discourse of a nationwhich began its life without a bourgeoisie, whosefirst citizens learned the polite mode of conversationfrom police reports: eg, At this stage Iapprehended the suspect, I informed him of hisrights and he come quietly with me to the podiumwhere he assisted me with my enquiries.
Yes, this is unfair of me. The word customer isdecent enough. You are our customer. If you area customer, then you shall be served. But, damnit, we have always had trouble with service.
In 1958 the Englishman J.D. Pringle, in hispatronising but insightful Australian Accent,made the following useful observation of Australians:they are inclined to assume that beingpolite is to be servile.
One could give many examples of this, hecontinues. Lawrence described it perfectly inthe opening pages of Kangaroo when Somers istrying to get a taxi. A distinguished British scientistwho was staying in a small hotel during a visitto Australia once asked the hotel porter — or manof all work — to bring down his bags from hisroom. He was taken aback to be told: `Why don'tyer do it yerself — yer look big enough.' ... TheAustralian cannot see why a man should notcarry his own bags if he is strong enough todo so. The same reasoning lies behind the almostuniversal custom of sitting in the front of the taxiif you are alone. To sit behind would imply themaster-servant relationship of the rich man andhis chauffeur. The driver will not say anything ifyou sit in the back, but he will often manage tomake you feel that you have committed an errorof taste.
Pringle seems unable to actually say why theporter and the taxi driver might be like this. Atfirst I was irritated by this apparent obtusenessbut finally, in the last page of his book, I began tosuspect that his silence was produced by caution.He had worked in Sydney after all. He knewbetter than to say that its inhabitants were stillmarked by the convict stain. But, in the last linesof Australian Accent, he finally reveals what hasbeen on his mind for 202 pages. Deep in thesecret heart of Sydney, he writes, beneath thebrashness and the pride and the boasting, is amemory of human suffering, and a resentment ofthose who caused it.
The past in Sydney is like this, both celebratedand denied, buried yet everywhere in evidence asin this Exhibit A, this irritating honorific Customer,which I set before Your Honour as, on thisclear blue-skied morning, I come to claim ahome.
Excerpted from 30 Days in Sydney by Peter Carey. Copyright © 2001 by Peter Carey. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.