The third book of my Sydney triptych, Sydney by Delia Falconer is a delightfully produced little non-fiction hardback, part of a series on Australian cities. Other titles in the series include: In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms with an introduction by Robert Dessaix; and Brisbane by Matthew Condon. Forthcoming books include Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham; Perth by Wendy Were; and Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy.
At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival where I attended a session titled ‘The Fascinator’ – Gail Jones, Ashley Hay and Delia Falconer spoke of their love of Sydney and the peculiar sense of ghosting and time slippage that occurs here. The moderator of that discussion, Jill Eddington, commented that she thought the three books – two fiction, one non-fiction – ‘speak to each other’ much in the same vein. And she was right. Reading them back-to-back-to-back I really saw the thread of time slippage and ghosting. Admittedly, it’s hard not to. Sydney is structured into ‘themes’: Ghosting, Dreaming, Living, Sweating, Showing Off. Each theme is divided into various entries which cover historical facts, myths, autobiography and personal viewpoints. What is provided therein is a rich vein of thoughts and conclusions on what this harbour city is all about.
There is a section of Kenneth Slessor’s poem Five Bells quoted inside the cover and Slessor is mentioned several times throughout the book. Also, the great story of eccentric Reverend Frank Cash who produced a book as an ode to the building of the Harbour Bridge is detailed. Cash was mentioned in Hay’s novel The Body in the Clouds. About ghosting Falconer writes [p21]: “There is a sense that everything has an extra layer of reflection, of slip beneath the surface.”
The book is very reminiscent in size, cover design, and look and feel to Peter Carey’s ode to the harbour city, entitled Thirty Days in Sydney, which is a wonderful book. Thirty Days was supposed to be the first in a series of travel books on global cities by authors, but I don’t know whether any others were published. Carey chose to show the history and character of Sydney by a series of interconnected short stories based around his own search for the truth of the city in coming back to it from his home in New York.
I enjoyed reading Sydney. It’s always nice to unearth new stories about the history and personality of the city in which you live. I’ve always considered myself very lucky to have been born and raised in Sydney and am grateful that I can still call it home. It’s hard to pick out a favourite anecdote from so many that Falconer has provided. There are stories about aboriginal peoples of Sydney, the first fleeters, and various colourful identities in the guise of the city’s underbelly. There are sad stories of murders and odd deaths. There is partying and glitz, the height of the 1980s reflected in none other than Geoffrey Edleston’s pink Lamborghini and purchase of the Sydney Swans. There is corruption and vice. There is the Cronulla riots. There is the celebration of many immigrants, including the great life (and funeral to match) of a Chinese man named Mei Quong Tart who established the many successful Victorian-era tea houses across the city and who would go around dressed in a Scottish kilt and quote Scottish poetry.
There are many literary references too. Patrick White, Ruth Park, Eleanor Dark, Christina Stead and others are discussed in terms of their relationship with Sydney and how the city influenced their work. These sorts of insights are a treasure trove for us lovers of literature – and Sydney literature particularly. For instance, Stead’s childhood in Watson’s Bay, (her house there has been in the news of late owing to the renovations the current owner plans to make), was the basis for her 1944 novel For Love Alone. Park’s novel, The Harp in the South was very much based on her own experiences of grinding poverty.
There are many anecdotes that sum up the city quite well. One of these is Falconer’s love (and my own) for the way in which, on the Millennium Eve harbour fireworks, the word Eternity was emblazoned across the bridge. The word is synonymous with Sydney and with another of our eccentrics, Arthur Stace, who used to chalk the word in lovely copperplate script on street corners across town very early in the mornings over the course of some 35 years in the middle of the 20th century. It was a masterstroke, something that Carey also paid tribute to in Thirty Days. Falconer provides the following additional anecdote: in 2001 the Sydney Council under then mayor Frank Sartor copyrighted Stace’s symbol under trademark law. Imagine that – a symbol of freedom and joy now constricted by the bounds of licensing laws, safe for official use! How’s that for irony? How’s that for Sydney?
Sydney by Delia Falconer
258 pages (plus additional extensive acknowledgements)
Source: purchased at SWF 2011