Part memoir, part guide to Sydney, Australia, this melancholic, moving, and funny exploration intertwines novelist Delia Falconer’s own stories with the city’s historical and literary past, showing how the city has evolved from the 1970s through today. From mad clergymen and amateur astronomers to Indigenous weather experts and local artists, this personal and unique record depicts the inhabitants of a beautiful, violent, and deeply spiritual city.
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About the Author
Delia Falconer is the author of The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers and The Service of Clouds. Her short stories and essays have been featured in various anthologies, including The Best Australian Essays, The Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature, and The Penguin Century of Australian Stories. She lives in Sydney, Australia.
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By Delia Falconer
University of New South Wales Press LtdCopyright © 2010 Delia Falconer
All rights reserved.
* * *
This is my favourite Sydney story. For a few decades, in the middle of last century, a hospital on the north shore sent each mother of a newborn home with a jacaranda seedling. And so when the valleys on either side of the city's train lines flare violet in October and November, each bright burst represents the beginning of a life. I was born in the old Crown Street Hospital in Surry Hills, long since demolished, so I will not leave my own living ghost behind me, a cloud of bright mauve light.
Unlike Kyoto with its cherry blossom, there is no official aesthetic tradition of jacaranda viewing here. But I cannot be the only person to divert my car up past the long run of trees on Oxford Street to enjoy the way they bloom against the colonial sandstone wall of the barracks, or to look forward to the weeks when their glowing corridors rain purple on to the streets of Elizabeth Bay. There is an uncanny moment, which lasts only for a day or two, when the purple on the trees and the fallen flowers reaches equilibrium, and the trees appear, quite eerily, to cast their own reflections on the ground.
Japan's flowers are a delicate reminder of the transience of feelings, of life's bittersweetness. Our traditions are more robust. At Sydney University the blossoming of the bare tree in the quadrangle – like the cherry, the jacaranda flowers before it leafs – is a sign to lazy students that it is too late to study for their end-of-year exams. In my childhood, they were planted foolishly, or perhaps sadistically, beside public swimming pools, to the peril of the bare-footed, since the fallen flowers are home to drunken bees. They are often planted next to Illawarra flame trees, marking the streets of our suburbs with companion bursts of violent red and purple. Their unnerving fluorescence and feral vigour, for they are also able to seed themselves in bush and gardens, makes them less filled with gentle longing than Japan's blossom. They invoke something closer to a hallucinatory yearning. Their colours appear unreal, as if you have suddenly developed the ability to see ultraviolet. But there is more to this uncanny feeling. They are an introduced species, from Central America and Brazil, whose purity of colour does not really fit the dappled tones of our nature.
And so it shouldn't surprise us to hear that the same stories are told in Brisbane, of a hospital sending mothers of newborns home with jacaranda seedlings, of a tree flowering in the university quadrangle a week before exams. These plants are so lovely that we can scarcely call them our own. While I always mourn them, it is almost a relief, a month before Christmas, when their ferny leaves crowd through, and the flowers brown and rot upon the ground.
* * *
The photograph has been taken on the Bondi to Bronte Beach Walk, at McKenzies Point: the Cadigal carving of a giant stingray. Its edges have been redrawn by the photographer in yellow light. Its shape is fulsome, organic. Three sharp gills are etched like comic worry lines beside each eye. As the sandstone promontory mottles in the dusk, the illuminated creature appears to float above it. A flat sea behind it to the south reflects the lights of low-rise Bronte. Photographer Peter Solness has captured the ray's spiritual force, a sense that it has willed itself into existence from out of the rock itself. Its bright outline casts a shadow, so that the enormous creature seems to hover beside the footpath, as if it has just lifted itself up from the sandy ocean floor and is now poised to swim off, into the still air.
There are no golfers on the Bondi Golf Course as I stand with Solness on the fairway, just below the cliff's edge. To the left of us, the sewage works emit a low hum, their brick ventilation chimney that rises in the middle of the course adding whiffs of sulphur to the stiff breeze. Nankeen kestrels bob and dip above the cliff's lip. 'Look at them – the great sandstone walls of Sydney', he says, as we step up to look out at bright water, and the layered stone that stretches, through the mist of sea spray, to the North Head in one direction, and all the way south to La Perouse.
This is where Solness shot two of the other photographs that have brought us here. In one, a mackerel sky still holds its blue, while the moon, below the horizon, casts a white path across the ocean. The lit-up outline of a shark glides across the cleft in the sandstone platform, which the dusk has turned mauve and pink. In the other, taken facing back toward Bondi, an illuminated lizard man stands, legs akimbo, his pointed organ large between them. There is an orange sunset behind him. Further down the rock he appears to have shed a large tail like a reptile's, or perhaps another penis. Water has gathered in a long depression in the stone beside him. In the daylight, I can see that the platform holds more carvings than Solness has illuminated in his pictures. There are some groupers, a dolphin, a sunfish and a whale. They overlap and enclose each other. There are probably many more beneath the fairways, Solness guesses, dug over in the 'gung-ho sixties' when the course was built.
To make his photographs, he uses a penlight and a long exposure. First – he shows me, repeating the movements – he takes the plastic cover off the tip of the penlight and attaches it to a long stick, which he has painted black. Then he sets off his camera on its tripod. Wearing black, he walks slowly around an image, and traces it freehand. This can take ten or fifteen minutes. Sometimes he will even allow himself to restore a part that is missing, as he has done here with the lizard man, whose skull ends abruptly at the fairway. He usually photographs at dusk, since he likes to capture the contrast between the glow of the city and the incandescent life of these carvings.
Rock art is notoriously difficult to photograph, he says; so much so that parks used to post signs encouraging visitors to wait for early morning or late afternoon for the best light. But some were not so patient, re-marking them with abrasive chalk, or filling them with sand. Here, in the 1960s, the Bondi council reworked the grooves of the lizard man with an angle grinder. The natural deterioration of the carvings is another problem. Once, initiated men would have returned regularly to refresh the etchings. With no Cadigal guardians left, current thinking is to let them fade away. Solness came up with this ingenious and respectful way of 'energising' the pictures several years ago. A special trick he developed, through experimenting, was to hold the stick at an angle, to make the ridges of the carvings cast their own shadows. This gives his images their haunting effect of reflection, of seeming to conjure themselves up out of the stone. It is a personal project for this tall man, who wants simply to remind people in the city of the presence of these ancient pictures. Where possible in the Sydney area, he consults traditional custodians for permission to publish his photographs.
'I think of this process as "ghosting"', he says.
* * *
On 14 May 1927, thirty-year-old Joe Lynch, on the way to a party with friends, his pockets weighted with full beer bottles, disappeared from the Manly ferry into the harbour near Fort Denison. His body was never recovered. Lynch is the drowned man in Kenneth Slessor's elegiac poem to the harbour, 'Five Bells', which he wrote in 1939. As the poet looks out his window, and hears a warship's bells ring out over the water, he finds himself imagining the wild black-and-white artist, with whom he worked at Smith's Weekly, continuing his spectral life as an angry ghost beneath it. The young man who once raved about melons and Milton in boarding-house rooms, the poet tells us, is now a kind of elemental spirit of the harbour, 'gone even from the meaning of a name'. Joe, 'long dead', rages wordlessly against the passage of time and life above, from far below the sea's 'deep and dissolving verticals of light'.
Lynch was also the model for his brother Guy Lynch's sculpture Satyr, now in the Sydney Botanic Gardens. Above the faun's monstrous body, Joe has been captured in rude life. His barfly's face is flushed beneath its horns, his eyes half-closed, as if he is wondering whether to recall some bibulous story, or start a fight. His thighs are matted and obscenely huge, the left barely able to cross over the right. Leaning back on his plinth, he hugs one knee with veiny arms.
Satyr caused a sensation when it was unveiled at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, three years before Joe's death. Critics described it as both a masterpiece and 'pagan work'. But Guy Lynch 'went to pieces' after Joe drowned, moving to London for almost a decade. He spent his last years on a poultry farm in the city's west, where he died in 1967. Ten years afterward, his wife had this bronze cast of the original made and placed in the Gardens by the Opera House gate. Now a symbol of Sydney's commingling of promise and death, Joe seems to bask luxuriously in the drench of morning sunlight.
This is all a temporary folly, his sardonic looks infer.
* * *
For all its vitality, Sydney is a haunted city. This is not a simple haunting, if hauntings can ever be thought of as straightforward. It is not just its human past that seems to well up. There is a sense that everything has an extra layer of reflection, of slip beneath the surface. Few other cities have such a compelling sense of being so temporary and yet so close to the eternal. None is so under the spell of natural beauty, but so addicted to the ugly as a kind of talisman against it. It would be hard to find another as vigorous and dreamy, as full of fecund life yet on the verge of decay.
Add to this the mysteriously porous nature of its sandstone, which means, after heavy rain, even when the air is still steaming, the ground is quickly grainy and dry. It is possible, in a single walk, to smell rotting fig and leaf mould, and the tea-like scent of eucalyptus leaves cooking on the sandy earth. In the middle of Sydney, one might walk by a tiny beach barely touched by occupation, where waves have dug their tiny holts into the cliff base, past the most modern and sleek of seaside pools, and around the 1816 marker of one of the colony's early roads; yet one will also have no inkling of how its Indigenous people lived here, or whether the same trees have always stood on the ridge above or replaced colonial buildings and encampments, erased before there was even time to register their existence. Sydney is not so much full of ghosts, as absences. It echoes.
In fact its physical presence is so strong, and so moody, that it is often hard for the human side to get a look-in. When it does, it has to compete with all this natural life – with mighty storms and great orange dusks that turn a velvety dark blue – without ancient human legends to help. For the language and stories of the Eora that made sense of the place are largely gone, and were ignored from the colony's beginnings. There is a sense in which Sydney is dogged by hauntedness itself, haunted philosophically; its ghostliness is almost depthless, as if – so quick and thorough has this forgetting been – there is a tremor in the bedrock of reality itself.
Then there is the sheer centrifugal nature of the city, which disperses itself along old convict roads to the towns of the Blue Mountains in the west and the satellite cities of the upper Hawkesbury in the north, and through heath and subtropical rainforest to its southern suburban fringe, which now extends almost as far as Wollongong. Studded with remnant bush and national parks, crossed by rivers and gleaming ocean inlets, it is hard to pinpoint, exactly, where the city begins and ends. So much so, that it has been hard, at times, for its inhabitants to believe that they live in a 'real' metropolis.
But if there is no stopping point, no reasonable limit, on a city's imagination, then there is always the danger that it will find no traction at all. The more our writers have tried to come up with grand symbolic schemes, the more slippery the place becomes. No wonder we have such a liking for earthy stories of rot and corruption, which emphasise the city's textures, and return it to a fallible human scale. The story, for example, that the water that reaches our taps from the Warragamba Dam bears traces of cocaine and greyhound blood. Or the legend that there is gold in our sewers – which, as it turns out, is as true as it is perfectly metaphorical, because of Sydney's long pollution by heavy metals.
* * *
We know the names of only a small number of the original inhabitants of this place, the most familiar being Bennelong, after whom the point where the Opera House now stands is named. Kidnapped in 1789 at Manly Beach, with the senior Cadigal man Colebe (who would escape within a few weeks), he lived awkwardly between the colonists' world and his own; travelling in 1792 to England, where he was presented to King George the Third, he would return to find that during his absence his second wife Gooroobaroobooloo had left him for another man, Carroway. Then there is Barangaroo, Bennelong's first wife, who opposed his closeness to the colonists (a new high-rise development on the city's western edge will soon bear her name); and Arabanoo, kidnapped the year before Bennelong, who would die of smallpox in 1789 after helping care for and bury other victims of the epidemic that would kill almost half of his people. There is the girl Patyegarang, friend or companion of the young Lieutenant Dawes, who worked with him to make the only concerted study of the Eora language; among her companions, Wariwear, Balluderry, Boorong and Kurubin. There are the Dharug warrior Pemulwuy, who led dozens of raids in the 1790s on settlers on the Hawkesbury and Georges rivers; Willemering, who would spear Governor Phillip clean through the shoulder in a confusing encounter at Manly Beach in 1790; and Yadyer, Bullmayne, Dolmoik, Kurrul, and the brothers Bluitt and Potta, six old men who gave eyewitness accounts of Cook's landing to Samuel Bennett, the author of The History of Australian Colonisation.
The Eora, wrote convict artist Thomas Watling in 1793, were 'extremely fond of painting and often sit hours by me when at work'. 'Several rocks round us have outre figures engraven in them', he also noted 'and some of their utensils and weapons are curiously carved, considering the materials they have to work with ...' One fantasises about what might have happened if Watling had shared his watercolours with these active, observant people; if they would have indicated the meaning of some of their 'outre' figures. But it is unlikely. Many would have been tied to sacred and secret stories, perhaps fully known only to the most senior members of the population themselves.
Besides, from the very beginning, relations with the Eora appeared to be characterised by an unwillingness on their part to engage with these strangers. After sending an angry delegation to Captain Cook's woodchoppers and waterers on the Botany Bay beach the day after their arrival, the Eora reportedly hid themselves in the bush. The trinkets the landing party had placed in their huts as 'payment' for stolen spears remained resolutely untouched; nor would they accept any other object, perhaps because the usual protocols of gift-giving had not been observed.
The Eora's strategic withdrawal in the first few days of the colony's official life seemed to establish an irrevocable pattern; and an awareness on the colonists' part of an elusive gap between language and place that still haunts the city. Cook, charged with making observations on the Indigenous inhabitants' way of life, had to resign himself to the fact that he would only be able to make them from the traces he found scattered across the sandy earth. He and the other mariners found themselves quite literally lost for words. Historian Maria Nugent observes that the expedition's journals, especially lengthy ones by Cook and the botanist Banks, are full of contradictory statements and amendments, crossings out, and new insertions. It is also possible to see this as the founding moment of our tendency to overburden the landscape itself with the expectation that it can somehow stand in for the enormity of what has been lost in the swift decimation of the Eora's language and culture.
Although other Aboriginal inhabitants would guide expeditions, and make other practical arrangements with the colonists, only Bennelong and Patyegarang seemed to have had any interest in genuine cultural exchange. Bennelong, who would give Governor Phillip one of his own five names, 'Woolarawarre', was a skilled diplomat: he brokered his people's co-operation in return for their freedom to move about town unmolested; he negotiated peace again when Willemering speared Phillip, who had had to flee down Manly beach with the six-foot shaft still protruding from his back; and, according to memoirist David Collins, discouraged other tribes from contact with the English in order to 'control the market' of gifts they exchanged. But words soon fail us again, for the only place we hear the voice of this senior Eora man who often lodged with Governor Phillip is his begging letter to the English Lord Sydney and his wife, dictated in 1796. 'Sir', it ends, 'send me you please some Handkerchiefs for pocket. you please Sir send me some shoes: two pair you please Sir.' Shunned by his own people, Bennelong would die in 1813, in James Squire's orchard at Kissing Point.
Other glimpses of the Eora are even more oblique. We know, for example, that Elizabeth Bay and Ultimo remained gathering places for ceremony into the nineteenth century; and Middle Harbour into the twentieth. Watkin Tench describes women body surfing on bark across the harbour, from Milsons Point to the city. Then, in 1789, the smallpox outbreak struck and killed almost half of the Eora. They did not vanish entirely: there are people living in Sydney today who claim their identity and country as Eora. Nor, by any means, were the Eora the only Aboriginal people in the greater Sydney area. (Even the meaning of the term 'Eora' is uncertain, appearing to be the word for 'people' that the harbourside Dharug used to refer to themselves. Other Dharug do not seem to have used it; nor did the clans of the three other language groups, the Dharawal, Gundungurra and Kurringgai.) But the epidemic was the beginning of the severing of Indigenous language and stories from this place.
Excerpted from Sydney by Delia Falconer. Copyright © 2010 Delia Falconer. Excerpted by permission of University of New South Wales Press Ltd.
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